Johnson, John Wesley

From Lane Co Oregon

The first president of the University of Oregon, John Wesley Johnson (1836-1898), was a man known for his stern countenance, unfailing strength and fortitude, and highminded purpose. Born in Missouri, he drove an ox team on the Oregon Trail at age fourteen, losing his mother and a sister to cholera along the way. After obtaining all the education available in 1850s Oregon, he borrowed money and took a ship back east to attend school at Yale. Graduating sixth in his class, he returned to Oregon in 1862, intending to be a lawyer. But the need for lawyers on the frontier was not great, so he took up teaching.

After filling academic positions in McMinnville and Portland, Johnson was personally recruited in 1876 by Thomas G. Hendricks, a prominent member of the Union University Association, to become the new Eugene school’s inaugural president. He served for seventeen years. His dedication to the university was absolute. He cut his personal costs while traveling on university business, cut his salary when the university faculty budget was reduced, and gave money from his own pocket when the lone university building (Deady Hall) was threatened with foreclosure.

“Pioneering in the cause of public education has not been lucrative,” he wrote in 1883, “though it has been the source of much happiness all along the path of my professional life.”

His work ethic was severe, and he expected the same from his students. A professor of Latin, he drilled his students so that by graduation they could write a grammar of the language. “Dawdling idlers or hopeless incompetents complained of his rigid requirements, but I never heard a good student complain,” wrote E.H. McAlister in memorium.

“He always helped a student by showing him how to help himself.” But he had a soft side as well, according to Virgil, one of his six children. The president’s son recalled how tramps often stopped at the Johnson house on 5th and Lawrence, as the railroad tracks were nearby. “His reason for never turning tramps away from the door, he told me once, was that in San Francisco he had been without a cent to buy food,” Virgil wrote. “Too proud to beg, he walked the streets until finally he met a chance friend who loaned him a dollar which was sufficient until he secured a job.”

And he had his own brand of humor, as related by Dr. John Straub, who came to the UO as a professor of Greek in 1878. Having been recruited in Portland, Straub arrived in Eugene one evening after a seven-hour train ride from the northern city. At about ten o’clock that night, he walked to the president’s house. Unable to find the gate in the dark, he climbed over the high wooden fence, only to be greeted by the owner’s hunting dogs. Johnson had already gone to bed, but he came to the door and made an appointment with Straub for the next morning, then directed his caller to the gate. At this point Straub asked Johnson if his dogs would bite. “No,” the president replied. “If they would, they’d have bitten you by now.”

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