Dr. Joe Johnson: Best advocate for the University of Tennessee

Sandra ClarkObits, West Knoxville

Back before we worried about DEI or conducting a national search to fill a top job, there was a system that worked. Called mentoring, it worked when Dr. Edward Boling (1970-88) replaced Dr. Andy Holt (1959-70) as president of the University of Tennessee. It worked when Dr. Joe Johnson (1991-99) followed Boling.

With the political exception of Lamar Alexander (1988-91) It worked so well for 40 years that nobody alive today can name three better presidents of the university that we love.

Dr. Johnson and wife Pat (Photo from UT Alumni magazine)

Drs. Johnson and Boling lacked the charisma of Holt, but they were trained in his ways. Do a stint in state government, follow the money, be nice to farmers – especially those in the Farm Bureau. And did we mention money?

As the public face of the University of Tennessee, Joe Johnson was organized, a planner. He knew the legislators and the donors. He knew the football fans and the university’s detractors. He stayed calm and worked his plan. He is credited with development of the UT System, a strategy to keep the university separate from what became the Board of Regents schools.

Joe’s lunch table near the door of Chesapeake’s downtown will be empty for a while. And then, if we’re lucky, someone will come along who cares about Knoxville and the Big Orange even a fraction as much as Joe Johnson. If we’re lucky, they will be able to raise money and build relationships to support good causes. You just know Joe has been mentoring someone.

The Johnson family held visitation at Laurel Church of Christ, 3457 Kingston Pike, on Oct. 3 and will hold a brief visitation at 2 p.m. today (10/4/23). The memorial service will follow at 3. Full obituary is here.

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