Jack Johnson, science fair's beloved 'father,' dies at 81

2013-08-07T00:00:00Z 2014-07-22T11:14:49Z Jack Johnson, science fair's beloved 'father,' dies at 81Tom Beal Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
August 07, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Jack D. Johnson, a University of Arizona professor and administrator who died Saturday at 81, is remembered most for his post-retirement work to boost the quality of Southern Arizona's science fair and expand participation in it.

Johnson was director of Flandrau Science Center when he began his affiliation with the Southern Arizona Regional Science and Engineering Fair.

Colleagues call him the "father" of that fair.

He is also the "godfather" of the Math, Science and Technology FunFest and an honorary grandfather to many kids who came back to the fair year after year, gaining research experience and the confidence to choose careers in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

Liz Baker, who coordinates STEM programs for the Girl Scouts of Southern Arizona, met Johnson when she entered the science fair for the first time in third grade. She erroneously thought she had earned fourth place for her project on where bugs live.

"However, when I went to pick up my project, on my way out, this gruff voice said, 'Young lady, I think you've forgotten something.' "

"He handed me the trophy for top project for K-3."

Baker kept going back and kept winning awards, even when her interest waned in her teen years. She didn't want to disappoint Johnson, who had become a second grandfather to her.

"He recruited my mom onto the board because he said she owed him because I had won so much."

Baker's mom, Kathleen Bethel, would eventually replace Johnson as director.

By that time, the fair was a well-funded "class act," Bethel said.

"He's the guy who took it from a couple hundred projects to what it is today. Last year we had 1,600 entries and about 75,000 kids do a science fair project," Bethel said.

Johnson seized on other opportunities to expand education in the sciences.

Sharon O'Neal got a call from Johnson after he read about the science "fun fest" she had arranged at her children's elementary school.

He wanted a "more global" version to coincide with the annual science fair - and he wanted it done in two months.

O'Neal, software engineering center director at Raytheon, took the idea to her CEO at Johnson's urging. The Math, Science and Technology FunFest is still going 13 years later.

"He was just my hero. He was this all-inspiring man who never stopped giving of himself, of his energy, his vision, his passion."

The "passion" part could make Johnson "a little ornery at times," O'Neal said.

"He would say: 'Don't tell me why we can't do something. We have to do this and do it well because there are kids out there and we are changing their lives.' "

Johnson was a taskmaster to his board members.

It was an honor to be asked to join the science fair board, said mathematician Bruce Bayly, but it was not an "honorary" position. He expected board members to give money, to raise money and to show up to work at the fair, said Bayly, a UA associate professor of mathematics. "Everybody had to roll up their sleeves. It ended up being loads of fun."

Johnson was a "phenomenal father" to her and her three brothers, said his daughter, Paula Johnson.

Jack Johnson lost his leg in a motorcycle wreck at age 19, and the majority of his 85 surgeries can be traced to that event, she said. It didn't slow him down.

"He was tough and when he went to do something, he did it. He water-skied. He played racquetball. It was horrible; he would beat me relentlessly."

Johnson's first degree, from the University of Minnesota, was in engineering. He worked in California for Hughes Aircraft and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory before going back to school to earn degrees in public health and watershed management.

At the UA, he was a professor in arid lands and agricultural engineering and associate dean of the Agriculture College.

Before he retired, he was associate dean of science and director of Flandrau Science Center.

In retirement, he remained "tireless and an inspiration," said Betsy Bolding, director of consumer affairs for Tucson Electric Power Co., who met Johnson through her company's sponsorship of the science fair. "Even when he was in rehab or the hospital, if he had his laptop, he'd be thinking about what we should be doing, or sending out a fundraising letter, or communicating to the kids."

He closely followed the careers of his science fair kids.

"He came to my wedding," said Melissa Lamberton, who first met Johnson as a second-grade science fair entrant.

Lamberton, who is pursuing a career in science writing, just earned her master's in fine arts and environment from Iowa State University.

She said she recently wrote Johnson a letter to tell him what his example and friendship meant to her. "I just hope he's proud of me and what I'm doing."

Liz Baker said she's certain Johnson was proud of her friend Lamberton and of all the science fair kids. "He's just the biggest softie, and he truly loves every child who comes through science fair."

Services for Johnson are Saturday at 3 p.m. at Christ Presbyterian Church, 6565 E. Broadway.

Paula Johnson said the family would like anyone with a science fair T-shirt to wear it to the memorial.

Donations can be made at sarsef.org, the fair's website.

Contact reporter Tom Beal at tbeal@azstarnet.com or 573-4158

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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