It’s a walk they’ve done countless times before.
From the ground floor of Harrison Hall, out the door, down the Quad and under the South Main Street overpass to the auditorium in Anthony Seeger — it’s happened for years every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to make it to the class of almost 200 potential School of Media Arts & Design students.
However, SMAD professors George Johnson and Roger Soenksen will soon make that walk, side by side, for the final time.
After 31 years at JMU, Johnson is calling his career.
“Well, it was time,” Johnson said. “I want time left to enjoy life a little bit.”
The decision to retire now was largely made with his family in mind. He’s ready to relish in being a grandfather. He saw how much his wife’s parents left an impact on his kids, and he wants to do that for his grandchildren.
But, he’s leaving behind a program and a career that’s spanned multiple decades. It’s also one that he didn’t necessarily see himself embarking on.
“My mother was a sixth-grade teacher and [I thought] ‘There was no way in hell I was going to do that,’” Johnson said. “I’d see her on the weekend sitting there constantly grading, and I said, ‘Uh, that’s not going to be me.’”
Johnson liked working in the television industry early in his career. It was something fresh — not repetitive like he found newspapers to be — and it was exciting. Working at places like the Mississippi Authority for Educational Television, there was always a new place he was going to for work, and he had the freedom to take vacations whenever he wanted. It wasn’t just limited to time off in the summer.
Johnson does admit that if he had been married when he worked in TV, he probably would’ve been divorced. In his first month working in television, he went 72 hours without sleep to meet a deadline. However, his mindset changed as he matured.
The man who loved TV and everything it offered realized that if he wanted a family, the industry was going to make it difficult to have one. So, he moved on.
Johnson had prior experience in academics before going into it full time. He helped start the photojournalism program at Southern Mississippi University.
Johnson then went on to help programs at Arkansas State and Southern Illinois — where he also received his Ph.D. — before finding his way to JMU in 1984. After one year in Harrisonburg, Johnson and his wife were on the move again, this time to the University of Tennessee so she could pursue her Ph.D.
“What was interesting about that is at the time I was teaching, students heard that I was leaving,” Johnson said. “They petitioned the president of the university to try to get me to stay, and so Dr. Carrier called me. That’s the first time I’ve ever had that and the last time I’ve ever had that conversation.”
After returning to JMU in 1988, Johnson saw numerous changes to the university and the SMAD department. He became the department chair in 1994 and made the decision to make SMAD a closed major. It became the second major at the university to require an application.
“SMAD is SMAD because George led us to where we are today,” Soenksen said.
During his time at JMU, Johnson created an image as a “utility infielder” — something he wants to be remembered as and what Soenksen uses to describe Johnson’s work ethic. Like a utility infielder, Johnson can play any position he needs to. Whenever something wasn’t taken on that needed to be, Johnson was there to help.
“He’s much more of a renaissance man than a lot of students realize,” Soenksen said. “He’s as comfortable with a power drill as he is sitting down with a soundboard and teaching students how to use our studio downstairs. He is as good in photography as anyone I’ve ever met, and he also has a knowledge of the law that’s equal to no one.”
Johnson’s willingness to fill holes is what led to the teaching partnership between him and Soenksen. When Brad Rollins — who previously taught the intro course — left the university, there wasn’t anyone willing to step up, so Johnson went for it. Working with Soenksen was an added bonus.
“It wasn’t because of Roger,” Johnson said with a chuckle. “Roger’s too easy to get along with.”
Since taking over the intro course, every SMAD student has learned from Johnson. Current department chair Gwyneth Mellinger sees how students admire Johnson — much of which is because of their experience learning from him.
“There’s no student who has come through SMAD since he’s been here, and I include in that the precursors to SMAD … who hasn’t been touched by him and that’s pretty extraordinary,” Mellinger said.
Mellinger believes that students can quickly tell if a professor is asking too much of their students while not also putting in the same amount of work. But that’s not Johnson.
“It’s very evident to me and everybody else in SMAD that he is deeply, deeply invested in the university,” Mellinger said. “He truly does bleed purple. He loves the university, he loves the department.”
Johnson and Soenksen are two of the longest-serving SMAD professors the school has seen, having arrived in 1984 and 1976, respectively. Their friendship dates back to the one-year stint Johnson had at the university before going to Tennessee. Johnson even credits Soenksen, in part, for convincing him to come back to JMU.
Throughout their friendship and time teaching SMAD 101 together, the memories have piled up. Soenksen remembers going over the syllabus in 101 and, unbeknownst to him, a sound effect was added by Johnson to a slide on the cell phone policy. Right as Soenksen went to share the rule with the students, a horn sound — one that he describes as what you would hear in a World War II movie — rang throughout the lecture hall.
“I set a new vertical record for an elderly professor in the class because I had no idea what was going on,” Soenksen said. “I’m looking over at George, and George is looking down, and all you see is his shoulders going up and down because he knew what had happened.”
It’s hard for Soenksen to pick one word to describe his longtime co-worker. After a long pause, with many different options coming to mind, Soenksen stopped on selfless.
It was about 1990, and Soenksen had dedicated much of his time to planning a conference for college media advisors. However, a week prior to the conference, the box that contained everything he had planned was accidentally thrown out and taken to the steam plant. When Soenksen told Johnson what had occurred, it didn’t take long for him to try and help.
“He disappeared and came back, and he had the yellow [latex] gloves from housekeeping and said, ‘I’m heading over to the steam plant,’” Soenksen recalled.
Soenksen said he could only imagine Johnson digging through piles trying to find the box. While it never was located, it was a perfect example for Soenksen that Johnson would do anything to help him.
The selfless, dedicated member who helped create the major won’t sit in the faculty meetings next year. He’ll bow out and leave the opportunity for someone else to step up. Mellinger fully expects members of the staff to realize come August how much Johnson does when the silence in meetings isn’t followed by him taking up whatever task is offered.
“I wonder if anybody will sit in his seat in the faculty meetings,” Mellinger wondered jokingly.
For now, Johnson only has a few classes left. He’ll give his finals, and then he’ll finish packing up his office and head out of Harrison Hall for his final time as a professor.
“It’s meant a lot to me over the years,” Johnson said. “It’s been my life.”
When the last student hands their final exam in Wednesday, Johnson and Soenksen will gather the tests together and make the walk back to Harrison. Once there, they’ll go their separate ways to their respective offices, and the walks will be over.
But, the friendship and legacy won’t be. Johnson’s impact will always be there, ingrained in the principles of what SMAD was created on.
“It’s going to be hard,” Soenksen said. “I feel so blessed to have known him as a friend, as a colleague [and to] teach with him. I mean, all those things put together is just such a powerful experience — it’s invaluable. So, I am what I am today because of George.”
Contact Catie Harper at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.