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An Educator's Obligation: 72 Years of Giving and the University of Chattanooga Alum Says "I'm Still Indebted"

Dr. Carroll Johnson

By Chandra Harris-McCray

"I am a triple threat," Dr. Carroll Johnson says with a deep laugh, as he slowly lowers himself into a chair, using his cane for leverage, in the sunroom of his Florida townhome.

He can barely see or hear, and without his cane, his legs are prone to do anything except walk where he wants them to go.

Despite his physical infirmities, Johnson is still a force to be reckoned with. At 97, he has been supporting Chattanooga's university for 72 years— since he was 25.

Holding the record as one of the longest supporters of the university, Johnson has outdone others and surprised himself. "Have I really been giving that long?" he asks, with puzzlement and a hint of laughter in his voice.

"And I am still indebted to UTC," says the 1935 UC graduate.

Johnson's deep obligation is rooted in a $100 scholarship he received to attend UTC's predecessor, the University of Chattanooga.

Raised 10 miles south of Chattanooga in the rural community of Wildwood, Ga., Johnson rode shotgun in the car of a lawyer's wife to and from UTC. "It was a measure of protection for his wife who worked in Chattanooga," Johnson explains, "and it was a great help to me." By his junior year, the lawyer, who tried to pique Johnson's interest in a law career, let him borrow his wife's car to ensure he made it to his classes.

Still Indebted
Legal briefs did not grab his attention in the same way English papers did in the classrooms of English professors Bonnie Gilbert and Mabel Griscomb. They made an impression on Johnson, as did registrar Betty Blocker and Mae Saunders who worked in the president's office.

"It was my college professors and UC administrators that really challenged the way I thought," he says.

After he graduated, Johnson earned a master's degree from the University of Georgia and master's and doctoral degrees from the Teachers College at Columbia University.

His illustrious teaching career began in the Georgia public schools where he started as a teacher before being promoted to principal.

After three and a half years in the Navy as a director of physical training, Johnson continued his educational career at one of the most pivotal times in history— desegregation of U.S. public schools. Serving as the superintendent of schools in White Plains, New York, Johnson surprised many in the urban school district when he— a Southern gentleman— supported integrating the school system.

Confronting Racial Injustice
The late Dr. Errold Collymore, a black dentist who confronted racial injustice and fought for change before the Civil Rights Movement officially began, sent a typewritten thank you letter to Johnson which said:

"When you came to White Plains I was very apprehensive...I openly expressed my doubts and anxiety about a superintendent of schools for White Plains who came from Georgia.

"My early fears were unfounded and unfair. I have been greatly impressed with your fairness, your objectivity, your considerable administrative competence...your dignity and unmistakable humanity."

A treasured possession of Johnson's, the letter is kept with a stack of other letters, newspaper clippings, and mementos.

Never saying "I," Johnson repeatedly says with emphasis: "We attained a measure of success when we integrated the schools."

Johnson conducted over 150 searches for school superintendents in 25 states. He served 12 years as a senior consultant to the National School Boards Association and conducted all their executive searches for school superintendents. Johnson recommended women and minorities for superintendent positions.

He often was asked to speak at annual conventions and conferences of the National School Boards Association and the American Association of School Administrators. One of those meetings stands out to Johnson because of his encounter with the University of Tennessee's beloved former president Dr. Andy Holt— "what a great man and storyteller," he says.

After 15 years in New York, Johnson accepted a position at the Teachers College at Columbia University.

With a humble "I-did-what-I-could-attitude," Johnson is quick to give teachers, staff, and others with whom he worked the praise for the success he attained.

"None of it would have been possible without the University of Chattanooga," he says. "So many people believed in me and gave me the foundation to build my career in education."

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