Sincerely, Joe

By Elizabeth A. Davis

Photos Courtesy of UT System (except noted)

UT President Emeritus Joe Johnson. (Photo by Adam Brimer)

UT President Emeritus Joe Johnson. (Photo by Adam Brimer)

Joe Johnson led a very large organization with thousands of employees and students spread across the entire state of Tennessee, and he was known for many important and critical achievements of the UT System.

His ability to cultivate individual relationships became the hallmark of his leadership. No matter who you were or what you had to offer, Johnson made individuals feel special because he was genuinely interested in each person, his or her goals and how he could help. He was a friend and mentor to many, from students to governors.

A display of personal letters from Johnson to various people that was show at Johnson's funeral.
Johnson was renowned for connecting, encouraging and advising others through personal letters. (Photo by Elizabeth A. Davis)

But after his death in September, what everyone talked about were the letters.

At Johnson’s funeral, a table displayed items from his office that included a typed letter on UT letterhead that surely represented the thousands he sent (dutifully typed by his secretaries) to every single person he met, every time he saw the acquaintance, had lunch (usually at Chesapeake’s downtown), or noticed an article about the person or clipping that would interest him or her.

His letters continue to speak to us. They mark milestones, his and ours. Through the letters, Johnson uplifted, thanked, encouraged, consoled and advised us. They continue to do so. Remember the time he made a call on your behalf? Read the letter. Remember when the information he shared made a difference? Read the letter. Remember when you just enjoyed being in his company? Read the letter.

“Each day of my 38 years has been enjoyable and rewarding because of involvement with outstanding students and alumni like you,” Johnson wrote to me — and could have been echoed in letters to many other alumni — in July 1999, when he retired. “Top flight UT graduates are everywhere, and they avidly support the Big Orange. Come to Knoxville and let me take you to lunch.”

“Retirement is going well for me. I have a nice office in the UT Conference Center on Henley Street. I teach a little, consult a little, do some private fundraising for UT, do some UT alumni work, and am in the midst of some local charitable organizations. See you soon. Give my best to your wonderful family. Call me,” Johnson wrote in 2000.

His letters following a meal almost always mentioned the name of the waiter or waitress, the topics of discussion and a list of the people who streamed by the table to say hello. “I thoroughly enjoyed having lunch with you at Chesapeake’s on Thursday. It was a delight to sit, relax, eat and talk with you as Sandra took good care of us.”

Joe Johnson signing a document while smiling for the camera in his old office.
Joe Johnson, who worked more than 50 years at the University of Tennessee – including as president from 1990 to 1999 and as interim president from 2003 to 2004 – died in September 2023.

“I certainly will miss our periodic luncheons and hallway encounters in Andy Holt Tower. … Thank you ever so much for reacting thoughtfully to my rambling questions and observations. I profit from your reactions, comments and thoughts,” he wrote before I moved to Chattanooga.

Last year was the first time I wrote a letter to him and did not receive a response. Did I need one? The stack of letters from over the years provides all the words he ever needed to write.

“I am grateful for your friendship, good sense and interest. Come back to see me.”