Fostering Education: Dave and Jan Johnson ‘All in’ on Supporting Alma Mater

By Keeley Meier '20 | May 08, 2024
John and Jan Johnson at Hamre Hall Pianos

Jan (Hovey) ‘75 and Dave Johnson ‘74 were close together yet worlds apart for more than two decades until the two Augustana alumni met, built their success stories and began to make an impact on their communities and alma mater. The Johnsons grew up just 10 miles from each other — Jan in Bruce, South Dakota, and Dave in Estelline, South Dakota. Although they shared a Lutheran parish growing up and their years at Augustana overlapped, the couple didn’t meet until 1977.

“I was singing at her cousin's wedding in early December,” Dave said. “I had come home from a European trip where I blew out my MCL (medial collateral ligament). So, I had a cast on from my hip to my ankle. After the wedding, she comes up to me and says, ‘What happened to you?’”

“I am not very forward,” Jan interjected. “In fact, I’m very shy.”

After Dave told her about his skiing injury, Jan asked when the cast would be coming off.

“I said, ‘Jan. 11,’” recalled Dave. “She said, ‘Jan. 11 — that's my birthday. Maybe we should celebrate.’”

He agreed to a celebration more than a month away. 

“This was before cell phones, and I didn't get her phone number, so there was no contact whatsoever,” Dave said. “But, five or six weeks after we had our first meeting, we both showed up (for the date).”

A year later, they were married.

A Family Business

Johnsons Reliabank

Although the Johnsons never met while students at Augustana, they both credit the institution with providing them a solid educational background for their success. Dave was drawn to Augustana through the influence of three of his older siblings who attended — Paul Johnson ‘59, Harriet (Johnson) Scott ‘59 and Cyndi Johnson ‘69. Dave, an economics major, sang in the Augustana Choir under the direction of the late Dr. Olaf Malmin, and spent his junior year abroad in Germany and England.

Jan had always loved English, literature and writing, and when it came time to think about college, she had only heard excellent things about the Augustana English Department. When she arrived at Augustana, she solidified English as her major and joined the English club and Kappa Delta Pi, the international honor society of education. 

Following Augustana, Dave attended graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. In 1975, back in South Dakota, Dave’s father was ready to sell his bank, so Dave made the decision to give banking a shot. Just a few months after returning home, Dave’s father passed away unexpectedly, and Dave took over management of the bank, now known as Reliabank, at just 23 years old. 

“Dave became a banker by fire,” said Jan.

Dave is the CEO & chairman of family-owned Reliabank. Jan is also involved in the family business — serving on the Reliabank Board of Directors, IT Committee and will eventually succeed Dave as chair of the board. 

“I never would have dreamt back when I was 21 years old that I would become a banker … never in my wildest dreams, but I have,” said Jan.

While learning the banking industry, Jan also taught high school English for 28 years in Estelline and four years in Watertown, South Dakota.

“Then, my dream job landed in my lap, which was teaching composition at Mount Marty College (now University) in Watertown,” Jan said. “I did that for 12 years before I retired.”

Between banking and teaching, the Johnsons welcomed their sons, Reid and Ethan, who both work for Reliabank.

Fostering Education

Despite their busy schedules as bank owners and, now, grandparents of seven, the Johnsons have never lost sight of their passions — incorporating each of them into the way they give back to their community and alma mater. The couple’s generosity was recognized in September when they were named the state’s 2023 Outstanding Philanthropists by the South Dakota Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

“It stems from our ELCA Lutheran faith,” Dave said of their desire to give back. “The writer of Luke challenges us saying, ‘To whom much is given, much is required.’ We’ve taken that to heart.”

“We have been very fortunate in our lives,” added Jan. “We feel that we have many gifts that have been given to us, so it's really important to us to give back to things and places that mean a lot to us. And, Augie gave us a really good start.”

Throughout the years, the Johnsons have been faithful supporters of Augustana — sponsoring the Jan, Reid & Ethan Johnson Jumping Pit within the Larson Track & Field Complex and a nursing office in the Froiland Science Complex. The Johnsons were also a major supporter of Old Trails and New Roads in South Dakota History, published by Augustana’s Center for Western Studies (CWS). 

In 2022, Dave and Jan gave a transformative gift to the School of Music, designated for the purchase of new pianos. Augustana received its first shipment of 31 state-of-the-art Yamaha pianos in the spring and summer of 2022. Hamre Recital Hall, faculty studios and the Pederson-Homan Center Keyboard Lab were the first to receive new pianos. The second phase, set to begin in 2026, will include the large-ensemble rehearsal rooms, recording studio and practice rooms in the lower level of the Fryxell Humanities Center. 

“I’ve got music in my family,” said Dave. “My grandmother was a piano and violin teacher. I sang in my mother’s choirs. I mean, I started going to choir before I even had memory of it because my mom would bring me as an infant. I also developed a hobby of singing the national anthem … I’ve sung for Augie Basketball, Volleyball, Football — even Minnesota Twins’ games.”

The Johnson’s most recent philanthropic endeavor with the university has been supporting the Augustana Hockey Program and Midco Arena. Dave and Jan are sponsoring the Reliabank Classroom, which will be located inside Midco Arena on Augustana’s campus.

“Education is very important to us, so a classroom in a sports facility is right up our alley,” said Jan.

And, it’s education they always come back to when the Johnsons consider what’s important and where it all started.

“Augustana gave both of us a really good background to be successful in our respective careers,” Jan said. “As we’re ending our careers, we're able to go back to Augustana and give back so that the next generation has the same opportunities we had. It's just so important to foster education, and if our dollars can help do that, we’re in.”

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