Condensing a legacy
The process of condensing a lifetime of work into a column or tribute can indeed feel inherently unfair, as it oversimplifies the richness and complexity of a person’s existence. It abbreviates decades of a person’s experiences, achievements and impact into editorial guidelines and guardrails that seek to enact brevity into a legacy that knows no boundaries.
UT System President Emeritus Joe Johnson’s life is a multifaceted tapestry of accomplishments, contributions and personal connections that defy summarization. Dr. Johnson passed away Friday, Sept. 29 at the age of 90, leaving behind a profound legacy marked by his contributions to education and his ability to inspire countless individuals to aspire for greatness. His passing is a reminder of the lasting impact that one person’s dedication and determination can have across our great state and in the countless generations that follow.
From his selfless service in the U.S. Army, to his dedication to serving the state of Tennessee, to his volunteerism to so many non-profit organizations, to the profound legacy he left at the University of Tennessee, the very foundation of Dr. Johnson could be summarized as this: he always left it better than he found it.
Specifically in his 38 years at UT, Dr. Johnson served faithfully as the executive assistant to UT president Andy Holt, as chancellor of the UT Health Science Center in Memphis, as vice president for institutional research, as executive vice president and vice president for development…and as president of the UT System – not once, but twice.
Dr. Johnson indeed left UT better than he found it. He was the architect behind the university-wide system created in 1969. Working for then-UT President Andy Holt, he helped lead the Knoxville campus through its period of greatest capital construction during the late 1960s. He also helped usher in the transformation of the Knoxville campus as the university bought house after house surrounding it, shifting its boundaries out to the Tennessee River and the railroad tracks to accommodate the growth of the student population from 10,000 to the 30,000 students currently at UTK.
During his own presidency, Dr. Johnson was instrumental in the creation of the UT-Battelle partnership to manage Oak Ridge National Lab. A legacy endeavor that still exists today.
He could fund raise and friend raise with the best of them…raising $434 million for UT’s 21st Century campaign…when the goal was $250 million. In his eight years as president, he grew the endowment from $275 million to $568 million.
But more than any of the accomplishments – and there were many – Dr. Johnson was a servant, a mentor and a friend.
He valued honesty – he said you need to be honest and fair in all of your dealings. He despised arrogance and said the heart of the university should never be found in the executive suite but instead in the classroom. Dr. Johnson would encourage us all to be good investors in others, and to make sure our investments are yielding incredible dividends.
Dr. Johnson was truly an honorable man who left a lasting impact on so many.
We’re much better off having known and learned from Dr. Johnson. A man of unmatched integrity and love for others. May he rest easy in grace and love, and may God’s comfort surround his family in the days, weeks and months ahead.
To learn more about Dr. Johnson’s lasting legacy, please visit legacy.tennessee.edu.
President, University of Tennessee System