Wingate Faces

Reflections on Walter Johnson

More than a Chemistry Teacher – Reflections on Walter R. Johnson

The year must have been 1973 or 1974…something like that. I was about 9 or 10 years old, probably in the fourth or fifth grade. I stopped by the Budd E. Smith Science Building on my way home from Wingate Elementary School. I entered through the front door and wandered down the first floor hallway peering into the various laboratories and class rooms…some empty and some occupied by college students on that afternoon. Then I made my way up the stairs to the second floor where the chemistry laboratories were located. At the time Wingate Junior College was in the process of becoming a four-year institution, marking a significant step from the very early days of the Wingate School and long before the current Wingate University was imagined. I had grown up on the campus of Wingate and was no stranger to the Budd Smith Science Building. In fact, it was one of my favorite places to visit given my interest in all things science (even at that young age) and my acquaintance with the science faculty of that time. But this particular trip to the Science Building was different. I was visiting at the invitation of Professor Walter R. Johnson, a long-time Wingate faculty member and a Chemistry Professor. Mr. Johnson and his wife Edith were members of Wingate Baptist Church and family friends, and I had known Mr. Johnson all my short life.

I’m not sure how the invitation to visit the chemistry laboratory actually came about… but my memory of it is that Mr. Johnson was aware of my interest in science through talking with my parents. At about this age, I established my first at-home laboratory with a chemistry kit, a microscope, and a lab bench that my Dad built for me. Perhaps it was after hearing about my laboratory at home that Mr. Johnson talked to me at church and extended the invitation to drop by and see the chemistry laboratory and what the college students were doing there. As I walked through the hallway of the second floor of the Science Building, I found Mr. Johnson in his office, working diligently and smoking his trademark pipe. He immediately stopped what he was doing and greeted me with his twinkling eyes and ever-present smile. He jumped from his chair enthusiastically and gave me a tour of the chemistry laboratory. The laboratory itself is a large room with four or five lab benches that can be occupied on both sides by students at work stations, a series of fume hoods on one wall, windows lining the other side of the room, and connected to a room for storing chemicals and glassware. On the day of this visit, the chemistry laboratory was not full of college students working on their weekly lab assignment. Rather, Mr. Johnson’s student assistant was working by herself in the laboratory on the exercise for the next week. I have no idea what reaction she performed that day, but it involved beakers, flasks, Bunsen burners, and various chemicals. I was thoroughly fascinated by the experience. Mr. Johnson made sure to give me a few pieces of real laboratory glassware to take home to my new lab. I treasured those simple beakers then, and I still have them today. It was impressive to me, even at that age, that Mr. Johnson had taken an interest in my curiosity and was willing to give his time to nurture that curiosity.

That visit to the chemistry laboratory was significant for me and was not the last. I frequently stopped in to see Mr. Johnson and the other faculty in the Science Building during my late elementary and middle school years…always hoping to see something new and perhaps gain a new beaker or flask to take home. Not so many years later (in 1982), I entered Wingate College as a freshman. Mr. Johnson was still teaching then and I was fortunate to have him as my chemistry laboratory instructor when I was a freshman. Along with 25 or 30 other students, I spent two semesters in the lab learning about basic chemistry. His teaching skills were evident as he interacted with my class as a whole, as he engaged small groups of students in the lab, and when he took time to instruct individual students…always with a twinkle in his eye, a smile, and a great deal of patience. Mr. Johnson had a great command of the classroom and teaching laboratory. He managed the college students with great ease. His teaching skills and classroom management reflected his many years of experience at the collegiate level as well as his prior experience as a high school teacher and principal.

In addition to having Mr. Johnson as a chemistry laboratory instructor, I was also his student assistant all four years that I spent at Wingate. I spent many hours working in that same chemistry laboratory that I had visited as an elementary school kid. While I was much older now as a college student, Mr. Johnson seemed to be about the same age as he had always been…he still had the same twinkle in his eye, the same infectious smile, and he smoked the same pipe.

After graduating from Wingate College with a major in biology and a minor in chemistry, I attended graduate school at Wake Forest University to study biochemistry. Not surprisingly, my early interest in biology and chemistry persisted into graduate school and continues until today. It’s not easy to completely know where one’s life inspirations originate, but I think it is easy to conclude that my interests in chemistry and related fields was significantly impacted from my early interactions with Mr. Johnson, as a young boy and then as a college student. Every day, I strive to engage my students, excite their curiosity, nurture their desire to learn, and teach them…as I attempt to emulate the great teachers that I have had, including Mr. Johnson.

Mr. Johnson retired from teaching in 1989, three years after I graduated in 1986. I was fortunate to see him (and his wife) from time to time at Wingate Baptist Church when I was visiting Wingate. He was always interested in my professional activities in research and what sorts of things we were doing in the laboratory. I last saw Mr. Johnson in the August of 2011 at my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary celebration. He still seemed then as young as he was 40 years earlier. He never seemed to age very much…never lost the twinkle in his eye…never lost his characteristic smile.

Mr. Johnson was more than a chemistry teacher, he was an educator. To be an educator requires one to engage the student, stimulate their desire to learn, convey new knowledge, and send them away more curious than they were when they arrived. Mr. Johnson accomplished this with generations of students during his years at Wingate from 1956-1989. His excellence as an educator was recognized by his students and colleagues alike. He was the recipient of the first Charles and Hazel Corts Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1986. I don’t know how many students Mr. Johnson taught over his 34 years of teaching at Wingate, but I am certain that many of them would agree that he was not an ordinary teacher…he was great in so many ways. To his students, he was greatly knowledgeable, greatly accessible, greatly engaging, greatly nurturing, greatly patient, greatly skilled as a teacher…and a great friend to all. William Author Ward might have been describing Mr. Walter Raleigh Johnson when he said that “…greatness is not found in possessions, power, position, or prestige…it is discovered in goodness, humility, service, and character…” Those of us who were his students certainly benefited from and were instructed by his goodness, humility, service, and character, and we are so much the better for it.

William B. Coleman, Ph.D.
Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine
Curriculum in Toxicology
Program in Translational Medicine
UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center
University of North Carolina School of Medicine
Chapel Hill, NC