Virginia Tech Magazine
In Retrospect
Spring 2008

J.S.A. Johnson

The names of his pallbearers read like a list of buildings on the Virginia Tech campus--Brodie, Rasche, Robeson, Burruss, Price, Williams, Norris--and his own name adds yet another to that list: John Samuel Adolphus Johnson.

When Johnson died in 1931, one of those pallbearers, President Julian A. Burruss, said, "No one who had the good fortune to know him and his work for this college would place him other than in the foremost rank of those who have served here."

Described as "straight as an arrow, taciturn, and . . . awesomely stern" by J. Ambler Johnston 1904, Johnson did, indeed, leave his mark during a 36-year association with Virginia Tech, known popularly then as VPI.

The 17-year-old Albemarle County, Va., native enrolled at VPI as a sophomore in 1895. Three years later, he completed his undergraduate work in mechanical engineering, setting a new record for the Blacksburg college in the process: the highest overall average ever for a student, a record that stood at least two more decades.

Johnson Hall
Johnson Hall
After graduating, Johnson passed the professional engineer exam and secured a job at his alma mater as assistant to the commandant of cadets and instructor while pursuing graduate professional degrees in both mechanical and civil engineering, which he completed in 1899. The following year, President John M. McBryde appointed him commandant--and assistant professor of mechanical engineering and military science. He was 22 years old. Along with five deans also appointed by McBryde, Johnson became a charter member of the college's executive council.

A strict disciplinarian given to few, but meaningful, words, Johnson spent six years as commandant before expressing the desire to devote all of his time to teaching. Once he no longer had a split job, he moved through the faculty ranks to become a professor of applied mechanics and experimental engineering. Students held him in high esteem, and the 1916 Bugle, which was dedicated to him, called him "a sincere and inspiring teacher."

In 1918, Johnson was named head of the mechanical engineering department, a position he held until his death in 1931. Beginning in 1920, he also became the first director of the Engineering Experiment Station.

But his life wasn't just about academics. Johnson was secretary of the General Alumni Association, assisted in establishing alumni chapters, and helped prepare the first roster of all students of the college. He chaired a committee determining the most suitable layout of what is now the Virginia Tech Montgomery Executive Airport and another committee on the college's physical plant. Off campus, he was a member of the Governor's Board of Mechanical Survey, presided over the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and helped design Blacksburg's water and sewage system. In all that he did, the 1916 Bugle noted, "[t]he guiding principle of his life has been the discharge of every duty in the best possible manner."

Ultimately, however, perhaps he took on too much. "So devoted was he to his work that he carried a burden beyond his strength," President Burruss wrote after Johnson took his own life at the age of 53.

Burruss cancelled classes during the funeral, and the corps of cadets lined the walks through which the funeral processed. Memories of Johnson's contributions did not die with him, and in 1966, a new residence hall was named in his honor, a fitting memorial for a man who had so abundantly demonstrated his affection for VPI.

Clara B. Cox is director of University Publications.

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