MHC Mourns Professor Johnson's Passing

Posted: March 29, 2006

Richard August Johnson, a professor of English and author of books on modern poetry and on English composition, died Monday, March 27, 2006 of multiple myeloma. He was 68 and lived in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Richard August Johnson, a professor of English and author of books on modern poetry and on English composition, died Monday, March 27, 2006 of multiple myeloma. He was 68 and lived in Silver Spring, Maryland.

He had moved with his wife, the Rev. Kay Johnson, to Silver Spring in 2001 partly in order to be closer to other family members, but he remained on the Mount Holyoke faculty until formally retiring in 2004.

"During his 39 years at Mount Holyoke College he has--with characteristic wit, imagination, generous good humor, and optimism--instructed both undergraduates and his colleagues in the pleasures of the life of the mind and of the literary texts that sustain that life," the College's Board of Trustees said on his retirement.

His fields of academic expertise included nineteenth- and twentieth-century British literature, literary criticism and theory, and composition. He was particularly passionate about the works of poet W.H. Auden, about whom he wrote extensively, and the novelists Jane Austen, Anthony Powell, and C.P. Snow. His first book, Man's Place: An Essay on Auden, was published in 1973. In 1993 his second book, coauthored with his Mount Holyoke colleague Carolyn Collette, was published: a textbook for college-level writing classes entitled Common Ground (later renamed Finding Common Ground in a second edition).

The College's alumnae magazine recognized him in a 2000 article as one of its outstanding teachers. "He pushed me to become a better writer than I ever thought I could be, opened my mind to different ways of thinking, and made me realize that you really can make a living doing something you love," a former student recalled.

His intellectual and personal interests ranged broadly to include architecture, art, history, sports, politics, music, and religion. He was an active protester of the Vietnam War, an avid Cubs and Red Sox fan, the architect of his own house in Massachusetts, an instrumental member of the design committee for a new Mount Holyoke science building, a basketball and squash player, and a longtime choir member.

Johnson was born in 1937 in Washington, DC, the youngest of four children of Cecil August Johnson and Esther Nelson Johnson. His parents were native Iowans who had moved to Washington during the Depression. In 1942 the family moved back to the Midwest, living for several years in Kansas City, Missouri, and then Hinsdale, Illinois, before returning to his mother's hometown of Webster City, Iowa. He considered Webster City his hometown as well.

Johnson attended Shimer College, which at that time was located in Mount Carroll, Illinois, and then Swarthmore College, from which he received his B.A. in 1959. He received his Ph.D. in English from Cornell University. After a two-year teaching stint at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, he joined the Mount Holyoke faculty in 1965. He was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, the honors society, and a recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

He was a member of the Swarthmore alumni council and an external examiner for Swarthmore honors exams in 1979, 1980, and 1983.

He played a leadership role in the Mount Holyoke community, at various times chairing the English department and the admission committee, directing the College's summer academic programs, and serving on numerous faculty committees.

He lived from 1965 until 2001 in South Hadley, where he was a member of All Saints Episcopal Church and served as senior warden. He later was active in Grace Episcopal Church in Amherst, where for a time he officiated at Friday evening worship services.

In 2000, shortly before moving to Silver Spring, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a debilitating form of cancer. To take advantage of the newest and most promising anticancer drugs and to contribute to the research, he participated in a succession of clinical trials, traveling regularly to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and to local hospitals and clinics for treatment despite significant pain.

During his years in Washington, he was a parishioner of St. Thomas' Episcopal Church in DuPont Circle. In 2003-2004 he developed the reading list and gave lectures for the 80-member Swarthmore College book club of Washington.

Survivors include his wife, the Rev. Kay Johnson; his sister, Nadyne Millar of Omaha; four sons, Nicholas Johnson of Silver Spring, Maryland, Patrick Johnson of Boston, Hong Net of Lynn, Massachusetts, and Louen Khun of Sewell, New Jersey; four daughters-in-law; six grandchildren; and many other beloved relatives. Patrick's wife, Jelena Petrovic '93, is a Mount Holyoke alumna.

Memorial donations may be made to the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation,

A service will be held Saturday, April 1, 11 am, at St. Patrick;s Episcopal Church, 4700 Whitehaven Parkway NW, Washington, D.C. Reception to follow at the church.

Funeral home: Francis J. Collins Funeral Home, Silver Spring, 301-593-9500

Contact information: Nick Johnson, 301-754-1814 or 301-741-6209, or

A memorial service for Richard A. Johnson will be held Saturday, May 13, at 3 pm in Abbey Chapel on the Mount Holyoke College campus.