Teacher, community leader

Agueda Iglesias Johnston (1892 – 1977) was an educator, civic leader, patriot and a woman of great internal strength and fortitude. Her commitment to education earned her place in the history books as one of Guam’s foremost educators. She not only committed her life to the education of Guam’s children, but also through her civic efforts, sought to improve the living conditions for all of Guam’s people.  She also exhibited a loyalty to democracy and freedom that few could match.

Born on 12 December 1892 in Hagåtña, Guam to Juan Acosta Dela Torre (1858 – 1940) and Maria Lujan Iglesias (1865 – 1918), she was only six years old when Guam became an American possession.  Her schooling started in Guam’s public elementary schools.  She then attended the US Naval Government High School and eventually the Guam Normal School for Teachers.  She completed courses with the American Correspondence School in Chicago, Illinois, and received an honorary Bachelor of Community Services from the College of Guam on 12 June 1968.  On 10 March 1976 she was granted a Degree of Humane Letters from the University of Guam.

Johnston began teaching at the age of 16. In 1925, she became the principal of Guam’s first junior high school, the Almacen Grammar School. After 11 years as principal of the grammar school she then became the first principal of George Washington Senior High School. She served as principal from 1936 until the outbreak of World War II.

Two months after the occupation of the island by the Japanese, officials introduced classes at George Washington Senior High School in Japanese culture and language, mathematics and reading.  Johnston was tasked with overseeing the school for the Japanese.  After the liberation of the island from the Japanese occupation, she resumed her position as principal of the High School.  In 1946 Johnston served as the Superintendent of Education, a position she held for seven years.

As a civic leader Johnston served the community in many ways.  She was a founding member of the Guam Women’s Club, a club credited with making significant improvements to the community after World War II.  She was also a member of the Guam Board of Education, the Guam Chapter of the American Red Cross and the Guam Memorial Board of Trustees.

She founded the Guam Girl Scouts and was instrumental in the elderly service organization, Servicio Para I Manamko (SPIMA). She was the president of the Guam Association of Retired Persons, a founding member of the Guam Fine Arts and Historical Society.  When the Guam Museum was founded in 1932, she assumed the responsibility of managing and caring for the collection of CHamoru cultural and historical artifacts.  Indeed, throughout her adult life, she was active in studying and supporting the preservation of the CHamoru culture.

In 1911 at the age of 19 Johnston married her English teacher, Navy Lieutenant William Gautier Johnston.  Together they had seven children: Cynthia, Margaret, Herbert, Joseph, Marian, Thomas and Eloise.

After the surrender of the island by the Americans during World War II, Johnston’s husband William, along with approximately 550 other Americans were sent to Kobe, Japan, as prisoners-of-war.  William never returned as he died in captivity.

The war brought out a hidden strength in Johnston.  She was a born civic leader, but now she was also a patriot.  During the Japanese Occupation, she helped raise the morale of the CHamoru people by passing on information about the progress of the war obtained from secret radios that were kept hidden from the occupiers.  She passed messages that were hidden in bars of soap made by her family.

In fact, Johnston put herself in jeopardy when she provided food, clothing, and reading material to George Tweed, the US Navy radioman for whom the Japanese were aggressively hunting.  Johnston was suspected of aiding Tweed.  As a result, she, along with her daughter Cynthia, was taken to the police station where she was interrogated, beaten and whipped.  She knew that several others had been tortured and some even killed for aiding the US Navy man, but she never revealed what she knew.  She vowed that she would die before telling them anything.  Her strength prevailed and she was eventually freed.  But this tragic time brought the news of the death of her husband in the POW camp in Kobe, Japan.

Established Liberation Day

After the war, Johnston convinced the US military leaders to support a celebration to commemorate the Liberation of the island from the Japanese.  This celebration continues to this day as one of Guam’s holidays – Liberation Day, which is celebrated on 21 July.

Respected and admired, Johnston was inducted into the Guam Educators Hall of Fame in 1982.  Over her lifetime she earned many distinctions for her educational, public service and civic contributions.  In 1974, the George Washington Junior High School located in Ordot / Chalan Pago was renamed the Agueda Iglesias Johnston Junior High School in her honor.  In 1982 it was renamed the Agueda Iglesias Johnston Middle School.

Although Johnston passed away on 30 December 1977, at the age of 85, her legacy as an educator, as a civic leader and patriot lives on.

By Patricia Long Diego and Jillette Leon-Guerrero

For further reading

Agueda I. Johnston Middle School. “Agueda I. Johnston Middle School – Fully Accredited by WASC Ordot, Chalan Pago Kattan District D.O.E. Middle School.”

DeLisle, Christine Taitano. “Navy Wives/Native Lives: The Cultural and Historical Relations between American Naval Wives and Chamorro Women in Guam, 1898-1945.” PhD diss., University of Michigan, 2008.

I Manfayi: Who’s Who in Chamorro History. Vol. 3. The Hale’-ta Series. Hagåtña: Department of Chamorro Affairs, Division of Research, Publication, and Training, 2002.

I Manfayi: Generations of Public Servants. Vol. 4. The Hale’-ta Series. Hagåtña: Department of Chamorro Affairs, Division of Research, Publication, and Training, 2003.

Johnston, Agueda Iglesias. Papers. MARC Working Papers #69, 1996. Richard Flores Taitano Micronesian Area Research Center, University of Guam.

Palomo, Tony, and Paul J. Borja. “Agueda Iglesias Johnston: Patriot.” In Liberation-Guam Remembers: A Golden Salute for the 50th Anniversary of the Liberation of Guam. Maite: Guam 50th Liberation Committee, 1994.