In the summer of 2016, Maurine Johnson made her final visit to The University of Texas at Dallas. She had come to campus for the dedication of Frank Johnson Drive, a street on the west side of campus adjoining Waterview Parkway named to honor the legacy of her late husband, Dr. Francis “Frank” Johnson, the University’s first acting president. Although the naming of this physical space served as a fitting remembrance of his pioneering efforts on behalf of the young university, Maurine Johnson had already made arrangements in her estate to provide a lasting benefit to the area that she and her husband considered the linchpin of success at any university — its people.
In 2010, Maurine Johnson became a member of UT Dallas’ Legacy Society when she documented a gift for the University originally valued around $2 million. Her gift was intended to create the Francis S. and Maurine G. Johnson Distinguished University Chair in the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. Upon her death, the University realized a gift that had unexpectedly increased in value. The largest planned gift accepted by UT Dallas to date, the contribution provided more than $5.5 million toward new endowments.
“The incredible generosity of this gift will make a tremendous impact at the University,” said Dr. Richard C. Benson, president of UT Dallas. “In addition to establishing the distinguished chair, the bequest is allowing us to create seven additional Francis S. and Maurine G. Johnson Chairs to support the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.”
As the original first lady of UT Dallas, Johnson occupied a unique position in the University’s history. While her husband and UT System leadership attempted to catalyze the development of the fledgling University and expand its breadth of expertise by building on existing areas of strength, she played a key role in helping to attract academic and industry leaders to campus and secure their commitments to join the University’s faculty. She welcomed recruits and distinguished guests in the couple’s home, hosting delegates from NASA and other space science institutions. By creating a caring and collegial environment for potential recruits and industry partners, she helped encourage many of the University’s first faculty members to come aboard.
“Maurine was Frank’s right-hand person, and together they accomplished so much,” said Penny Lesan, Maurine Johnson’s niece and executor of her estate. “They made quite the team through 66 years of marriage.”
An expert in atmospheric physics, Frank Johnson served as manager of space physics for Lockheed Missiles and Space Co., and while working in the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., he designed instruments to study German V2 rockets captured after World War II. One of his crowning achievements was the invention of a gauge that was used to detect atmospheric pressure on the moon, a device which flew on Apollo missions 12, 14 and 15.
His leadership at UT Dallas helped to deepen the University’s connections with exciting developments in the new field of space exploration and cemented the University’s reputation as an innovative leader operating at the crossroads of academia and industry.
“Frank was one of the most humble and caring people that I have ever known,” Lesan said. “He would be honored that his name lives on through these endowed chairs.”
Through the establishment of eight endowed chairs, Maurine Johnson’s gift will continue the couple’s legacy of support for innovative research and education, propelling ever greater advancements in the creation and dissemination of new knowledge through the many academic careers that will benefit from the resources afforded by the new positions.
“Endowed professorships are the lifeblood of every great university,” said Benson, who holds the Eugene McDermott Distinguished University Chair of Leadership. “These funds provide a perpetual source of support that allows for the recruitment and retention of outstanding individuals who will enhance students’ academic experiences and advance the reputation of their schools.”
The creation of the Francis S. and Maurine G. Johnson Chairs and Distinguished University Chair comes at a time when UT Dallas has redoubled its commitment to both its faculty and the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. The University’s Strategic Plan calls for an expansion in the number of tenure and tenure-track faculty across the University from its current total of 580 to 710 by 2023. With the additional support offered by these eight new endowments, the Johnsons’ gift will help meet this goal through the flexibility it lends school leadership to attract new scholars and retain its current body of talented faculty.
“As the highest academic award the University can bestow on a faculty member, endowed professorships and chairs recognize the impact of senior faculty on their fields and provide resources which help to push the frontiers of scholarship,” said Dr. Hobson Wildenthal, executive vice president and former Cecil H. Green Distinguished Chair of Academic Leadership.
Construction is currently underway for a new Science Building scheduled to open in the spring of 2020. This 186,000-square-foot building will house some of the school’s units closest to the Johnsons’ hearts, including the Department of Physics and the William B. Hanson Center for Space Sciences. It will also boast multiple classrooms, lecture halls, offices and research laboratories, as well as high-ceiling spaces that will make the building stand out among peer institutions by allowing for the development and testing of large structures.
Generations of students will benefit from the cutting-edge resources afforded by this facility as they are instructed by expert faculty holding the endowed chairs created by Maurine Johnson’s generosity.
“The legacy that Maurine and Frank Johnson leave through this remarkable bequest will impact the realization of UT Dallas’ mission to become a world-class institution of teaching and research far into the future,” Wildenthal said.