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Dr. Francis S. "Frank" Johnson
Recorded Aug. 14, 2009
Office of Communications, UT Dallas
Host: Brandon V. Webb, Communications Manager
Question: Greetings, and welcome to A Conversation With... I'm Brandon Webb. Our conversation today is with former UT Dallas Interim President Francis S. Johnson. Originally the Graduate Research Center of the Southwest and founded by TI founders Erik Jonsson, Cecil Green and Eugene McDermott, the organization became the Southwest Center for Advanced Studies in 1967. Two years later in 1969, Dr. Johnson became president of the organization, which joined the University of Texas System that same year in 1969 becoming UT Dallas. Dr. Johnson was interim president of UT Dallas through July 1971 when Bryce Jordan became the first president of UT Dallas. The University is celebrating its 40th anniversary throughout 2009. Thanks for being here, Dr. Johnson.
Dr. Johnson: It's a pleasure to be here and astounding to see the beautiful campus that's emerging.
We came into the campus, and you got a little tour today. Tell me your thoughts as you navigate through what was once a building in a cotton field.
Dr. Johnson: Well, I couldn't see very much that I recognized from the past. Much impressed by the beauty of the campus. It's a very attractive campus.
Question: Tell me, Dr. Johnson, what brought you to the Southwest Center for Advanced Studies.
Dr. Johnson: Well, it was, I got a telephone call while I was living in Palo Alto, California, from a man I didn't know, his name was Larry Marshall. But it was working for Berkner, and he called me and said he would like to meet with me. I don't think he told me what he wanted to meet about. But I did meet with him in Palo Alto. He gave a broad outline of what was going on here in Dallas. He mentioned Berkner's name because he was, I'll say, the spiritual founder of the Graduate Research Center of the Southwest. I knew Berkner by reputation, but I had never met him. He gave me a brief sketch of what the concept was, and I came to Dallas to meet with Berkner and others a week or two later. Things moved very fast. So I met Berkner at that time and heard his concept, and I was impressed by his, I'll say, lofty vision. I very quickly committed myself to joining the organization, bought a house here in Dallas, and quit my job at Lockheed where I was manager of Space Physics for the Missiles and Space company. And, well, so I've been here since the beginning of the concept and lived through the various problems and successes along the way. It was the nobility of Berkner's concept. I was impressed with it as being a worthy effort, and without Berkner, I am sure I wouldn't have considered it. I did know Cecil Green before that. I had met him. So, knowing of him and his activity, as well as Berkner's, that's what persuaded me to join.
Question: Now you presided over the organization and steered it through an extremely important transition from a center to a public university. How did that come about?
Dr. Johnson: Well, of course we had to adapt to the bureaucracy of the University of Texas System and having no experience along that line there were rough spots along the way. But on the whole we had good support from the Chancellor's office. So, there were no great problems, but still there were some minor points of difficulty.
Question: The University was signed via House Bill, or rather the organization was signed into a university via House Bill in June of 1969 by Gov. Preston Smith, but at the time wasn't it a little controversial to be bringing a...
Dr. Johnson: Oh! Yeah, there was a lot of political concerns about all the universities in the North Texas area were against it, particularly against having undergraduates. At the beginning, by legislative action we could not have any undergraduates. That was lifted later. It's now a great, full-fledged university.
Question: You mentioned that, you mentioned earlier that you bought your home in 1962 and were starting a new job at a new place that wasn't yet established. Then just a few short years later, you are interim president of the newest public university in the UT System. Could you have envisioned that things would happen that quickly?
Dr. Johnson: No, I had no idea of course when I came here that, in fact I might not even have come say if Berkner had died a few years earlier. If I had known that was likely to happen, I probably would have thought an unacceptable risk to come here. But clearly, Berkner's role in this was an important factor in my decision.
Question: Now, initially, Dr. Johnson, you were. . . Initially you were recruited to the Graduate Research… Originally, you were recruited to do research at the Southwest Center for Advanced Studies, is that correct?
Dr. Johnson: Yes, that is right. I started the research program in Space and Atmospheric Physics.
Question: What areas were you focusing on primarily?
Dr. Johnson: Well, I was concerned about the upper atmosphere and that borders on space research. I started in space research in an almost accidental way after I got out of the Air Force, or what was then the Army Air Corps at the end of World War II. I accepted at job at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C.. There, it was almost an accidental thing that I was assigned to the Optics division of that laboratory when I accepted a job there and walked in off the streets. And, met some prestigious scientist who worked there, and they offered me a position and so I very quickly worked there. The first real assignment that I had there was to build instrumentation to put in a V2 rocket--many of them about a hundred had been captured from the Germans in Europe, brought to Texas and fired for practice in launching rockets.
Question: Where were they fired?
Dr. Johnson: At White Sands Proving Ground, but adjacent to Fort Bliss and El Paso. And along with the rockets came the engineering crew of Von Brown and many of his associates were also there. The rockets were fired under contract through the Army by General Electric Company. They had the contract to fire these rockets and learn how they worked.
Question: In approximately, what year was this?
Dr. Johnson: This was in 1946.
Question: Tell me your thoughts on transitioning from pure researcher to now administrator. How did you find that the transition went for you?
Dr. Johnson: Well, it was the matter of accommodating to the unknown, the bureaucracy. There were some rough spots here and there, but there was nothing overwhelming by any means.
Question: When you look back on your time here in the administration and leadership as Interim President, what are some things you are most proud of?
Dr. Johnson: Well, preserving the institution because I don't know whether the institution could have survived without some leadership in this. The other part of it was the matter of financing, of course that was at the heart of it. It was proving more costly than private philanthropy could support. On the other hand, the effort that I brought here in space and atmospheric physics, we were fortunate in being able to get government support for that. So, the program that I headed here in those first years was the least expensive of the programs that they aspired to establish. Other areas which were noteworthy and were successes, I would say in terms as establishing Dallas as a research center in several areas of research included Geosciences, rather naturally with the interests in oil in this part of the country, Molecular Biology, which was just blossoming at that time and it was a fine effort established here under the leadership of a German scientist Carsten Bresch, who really brought that to fruition. Geosciences, the molecular biology. Was there another one? The Geophysics, yes. I think that's it. But they did not have as much success getting government funding. That one of the things that lead to the realization that the only way to preserve the institution was to bring it under state support.
Question: At what point did you realize over the years that, or did you become very become very confident about over the years that the organization would stand and thrive and continue to grow?
Dr. Johnson: Well, I guess you would say it was when the decision was made and the battle was fought and won to bring this into the UT System. It was prior to that the future of the institution was precarious.
Question: You mentioned up until about 20 years ago you maintained an office here on campus. Do you mind sharing with us, Dr. Johnson, how old you are?
Dr. Johnson: I'm 91 years old.
Question: As you look back over your time as a research scientist, as an administrator, as an interim president of a growing organization, a new member of the UT System, what would you most like to be remembered for?
Dr. Johnson: As having been a factor in preserving the institution, I think.
Question: A source of great pride to you, it's obvious.
Dr. Johnson: Yes it is, indeed. It is, yes.
Question: As you look at the campus today, we took a tour today around campus earlier, and as the university continues to make bold strides toward Tier One status, top research university status. What do you think about the evolution of UT Dallas over the years?
Dr. Johnson: It's going forward, I would say at an amazing rate, I'm surprised to find that the student body is as large as it is now. I hadn't anticipated that. It's something I never really thought much about.
Question: It truly has been a pleasure Dr. Johnson. I'm so thankful that you came today and we so appreciate the opportunity to sit down with you and your lovely wife and visit.
Dr. Johnson: Well, thank you.
Host: Thank you so much. This has been A Conversation With... with former interim President Dr. Frank Johnson, brought to you by the University of Texas at Dallas and the Office of Communications. To find out more about the University or any of our special guests, visit us on the web at utdallas.edu. UT Dallas, creating the future since 1969. Until the next Conversation With... I'm Brandon Webb, be well.
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