Photo: UT President Joe DiPietro (left) presents the Board of Trustees’ Lifetime Achievement Award to UT President Emeritus Joe Johnson at the President’s Council weekend in October.
For more than 50 years, Dr. Joe Johnson has had a hand in determining the future of the University of Tennessee. For that, he was presented with the Board of Trustees’ Lifetime Achievement Award named in his honor during President’s Council weekend in October.
Through a career that has ranged from serving as vice president for development, interim chancellor of the Health Science Center, executive assistant to presidents Andy Holt and Ed Boling and president from 1990-99, Johnson has led fundraising campaigns, lobbied for state resources, overseen expansion of the university and creation of the UT System, secured key partnerships and mentored many current students and alumni.
He has served as president emeritus and once as interim president during his retirement, which former UTC chancellor Fred Obear described as “almost as lengthy a retirement as he’s had service to the university.”
Now with an office on the seventh floor of Andy Holt Tower, one floor below the president’s office, Johnson is often sought for advice and counsel by current president Joe DiPietro, whom Johnson nominated for that role.
“I’ve always said over and over again to myself that, if I can be half as good as Dr. Johnson or Dr. Holt or Dr. Boling, I will have done just fine in this job,” DiPietro says.
The Board of Trustees surprised Johnson with the award at its meeting last June.
“This demonstrates that, if you live long enough, some good things may happen to you,” Johnson said at the meeting in his usual joking manner. “This is an honor I very much appreciate and will continue to appreciate.”
Johnson is often seen with various guests eating lunch at Chesapeake’s or breakfast at Pete’s Café downtown. If you are lucky enough to snag a seat beside him, don’t forget to write a thank-you letter. And put a rush on it. He’s famous for very prompt thank-you letters that detail conversations and your meeting with him.
“I found through the years that people remembered these, and they were very appreciated,” says Carla Parmele, who served as Johnson’s administrative assistant while he was president.
During the awards ceremony, Johnson was described as having extraordinary institutional memory and being kind and humorous, which included references to his repository of Auburn jokes.
“He always makes you feel good, and that to me is a mark of a good leader,” says Pat Wall, former UTHSC chancellor and special assistant to the president.
By his side during all of Johnson’s years with UT has been his wife, Pat.
“Most people know he’s had a mistress. Her name is the University of Tennessee,” she says. “When he retired, I thought I got rid of her, but I didn’t.”