SPENCER, Iowa | Long before she ascended the ranks of the U.S. Air Force, Michelle Johnson was an intense, competitive and humble top student and athlete at Spencer High School.
Dick Lineweaver, her track coach, still remembers Johnson’s incredible work ethic. She was the first to arrive at practice and the last to leave.
"Everything she did, she would go all out," he said, adding later, "After practice, she would take four or five girls with her to run more bleachers or go on a four- or five-mile jog."
Johnson on Monday became the first woman to lead the Air Force Academy, the military school for officer candidates headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colo. Her appointment makes Johnson, a lieutenant general, one of the highest-ranking women in the military, in charge of 4,000 cadets
She said her assignment is an example of the nation's willingness to give everyone a chance.
"I was very blessed to be born where I was and when I was," said Johnson, who also was the academy's first female cadet wing commander and first female Rhodes scholar.
Those who knew Johnson in Spencer said they could see her trajectory.
“She just had a standard of excellence that made everyone around her want to do better,” said high school classmate Wendy Henrichs, who played basketball and ran track with Johnson.
Johnson, who graduated in 1977, was a straight-A student, a varsity basketball player and an annual competitor in the state track finals.
Jan Myers, who taught Johnson American Literature at Spencer High, describes watching her grow up as “one of the thrills of my life.”
“She was kind of leading the way,” Myers said. “It’s not like she pushed it on other people, but she was always encouraging and cheering her teammates on. She’s certainly the cream of the crop.”
Johnson went on to graduate from the Air Force Academy in 1981 after becoming the women’s basketball team’s second-highest all-time scorer, with 1,706 points.
She became an assistant professor of political science at the academy, but not before getting her master’s degree in politics and economics from Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. She also holds a master's degree in national security strategy from the National War College at Fort Lesley J. McNair in Washington.
As a command pilot, she has more than 3,600 flight hours in large cargo planes and aerial refueling tankers. Johnson's most recent assignment was as NATO's deputy chief of staff for operations and intelligence.
At the academy, she replaces the retiring Lt. Gen. Michael Gould, who was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for his four years of leadership at the school.
She is the second woman appointed to command a service academy, after Coast Guard Rear Adm. Sandra Stosz, who became superintendent of the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., in 2011.
Johnson told the academy's cadets Monday that she wants them to understand the Air Force's global influence, and she stressed that its capabilities are balanced on the shoulders of sergeants and airmen.
"We as officers really have to be on our game to lead them the way they deserve," she said.
Henrichs said Spencer is very proud of Johnson.
“They talk about favorite sons,” Henrichs said, “but I would say no doubt that Michelle Johnson is the favorite daughter of Spencer, Iowa.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.