UT President Emeritus Joe Johnson has died
His leadership style was not about giving orders. Instead, he offered suggestions, sometimes so subtle that people missed his point.
The region and the state lost a really caring and impactful leader on September 29 with the death of Joe Johnson, President Emeritus of the University of Tennessee (UT).
If my memory is correct, he’s the only person to have served two different terms as UT’s President – from 1990 to 1999 and again from August 2003 until June of 2004. The humble native of Vernon, AL regaled audiences for decades with his Auburn University stories. It was part of his engaging, down-to-earth style that made people feel so comfortable around him in whatever setting.
Joe Johnson was a champion of the land grant mission that was historically characterized as teaching, research and public service. He was a strong defender of the UT System which he helped create during the Presidency of the legendary Andy Holt. Joe also championed UT’s alliance with Battelle to come together in 1999 to bid on the management contract for Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a major accomplishment that is now more than two decades old.
When UT named its 100 most distinguished alumni, Joe Johnson was an obvious choice, and he was saluted by then President Joe DiPietro in this article in The Tennessee Alumnus magazine.
I had the privilege of knowing Joe and the pleasure of working with and for him during my 35 years at UT. As a student, I probably had met him, but it was not until I joined the Alumni Office in September 1969 that I really spent time around Joe. I’ll never forget our first trip together to a local alumni chapter meeting in Copperhill, TN. That’s in Polk County on the Tennessee-Georgia border, and Joe did what he did best – telling stories, making a few key points, and ensuring that those in attendance felt good about their alma mater. It was friend raising on steroids.
As I was able to engage with Joe more, I quickly learned that he was constantly doing something – working crosswords puzzles, talking on the phone long before cellphones were available, attending more meetings than one can imagine, and hand-writing letters and memos on an always present legal pad. They would be converted to a typed version later by his Assistant.
Joe’s leadership style was not about giving orders. He offered suggestions, sometimes so subtle that people missed his point. I learned to read his nuances and another aspect of communication that Joe said he shunned – a person’s body language. I’m not sure I ever agreed with that assertion.
Three key interactions that I had over the years helped define the person who gave so much to this community and state for decades.
- In 1984 my mentor suddenly had a series of seizures and was in a coma. This occurred within days ahead of my mentor leading the kick-off of a UT-wide telecommunications task force. As my mentor’s deputy, I called Joe and asked him what we should do, suggesting we should cancel the meeting. He responded with a question: “Do you know how Bob planned to run the meeting?” I said we did. Joe said, “Proceed and decide what needs to be done next.” That began nearly 20 years of involvement in telecommunications strategy and policy before my retirement from UT.
- When Ned McWherter succeeded Lamar Alexander as Governor in 1987, Joe called me into his office for a quick discussion. My mentor was still on sick leave, and I had inherited his duties without the accompanying title. The brief discussion was indicative of the subtlety of Joe Johnson and went something like this: “Tom, didn’t Bob and IPS (the Institute for Public Service) have a stronger relationship with state government years ago?” My response was “Yes, we did.” Joe asked, “Was that a good thing?” I said it was. “Then, you might want to think about that with the new administration in Nashville.” He was right, we actively engaged with the McWherter team, and the benefits were substantial.
- A few years later, Joe and I shared something in common, albeit in his case much more significant. Everyone assumed that he would succeed Ed Boling as President but, at the last minute, the Board of Trustees named Lamar Alexander. Like the loyal and dedicated soldier he was, Joe remained in his position as Executive Vice President and eventually was rewarded when Alexander was named U.S. Secretary of Education a few years later. In my case, my mentor had died, but the Vice President slot was still vacant. Alexander decided to fill it, and I came in second in the sweepstakes. Joe helped me navigate my disappointment and identified ways to keep me even more engaged in strategic initiatives at UT for the next decade before I eventually became a Vice President in 2000. There are no doubt many other examples of his concern for individuals and the ways that he helped so many people succeed.
Joe Johnson was a remarkable individual. He cared about UT, this community, the Volunteer State, and, perhaps most important, people. He was the epitome of a true servant leader. We will miss him, but I and so many others will forever be eternally grateful for his friendship and support.
FUNERAL DETAILS: The Johnson family will hold visitation at Laurel Church of Christ from 4 to 7 p.m. October 3. The family will also hold a brief visitation prior to the service at 2 p.m. October 4 at Laurel Church of Christ, and the Memorial Service will follow at 3 p.m. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Dr. Joe and Mrs. Pat Johnson Scholarship Fund at the University of Tennessee, Helen Ross McNabb Mental Health Center, Knoxville Area Rescue Mission, Museum of Appalachia, Boy Scouts of East Tennessee, Friends of the Smokies, or Laurel Church of Christ.