Archive for Thursday, March 26, 1998


March 26, 1998


Jane Johnson, who for almost three decades watched chancellor after chancellor come and go, is retiring April 3.

By all accounts, Jane Johnson is the veritable heartbeat of the Kansas University Office of the Chancellor.

And after 27 years at KU, Johnson, longtime secretary to the chancellor, has decided to retire.

``I'm feeling mixed emotions, I guess you could say,'' said Johnson, 63. ``I'm so excited because I'm not going to have to go to work every day. (But) this has been my life every day for 27 years.''

In between making countless travel arrangements, scheduling every minute of each chancellor's day and overseeing the day-to-day operations of the office, Johnson has always managed to balance pleasant conversations with those who walk by her desk.

And over the years, the passersby have ranged from friendly co-workers to angry protesters.

``I've been sitting where I'm sitting now all this time,'' Johnson said, pointing to her cubicle in the hallway.

In all, Johnson has worked through two complete chancellor's administrations -- Archie Dykes (1973-80), and Gene Budig (1981-1994) -- as well as during two interim terms with Del Shankel, KU professor emeritus of microbiology.

Johnson has served almost three years under current KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway.

``They all have the same agenda, and they've all been successful at keeping the university at the forefront,'' Johnson said when asked to characterize each boss. ``They don't have another life besides being chancellor.''

`Cultural shock'

A native of Marceline, Mo. (Walt Disney's boyhood home), Johnson grew up the daughter of a railroad man. But when Santa Fe pulled out of Marceline in the 1950s, the family moved to Topeka.

By then, Johnson was already taking classes at Emporia State University, where in 1958 she received a bachelor's degree in business.

About a year after graduation, Johnson got married and moved to Gainesville, Fla., where her husband, Jerry, attended a year of law school at the University of Florida, and where she worked as a secretary.

In 1960, the couple moved to Lawrence, where they worked as house parents for KU's first co-ed residence hall in Carruth O'Leary. Every day, the Johnsons ate meals with Jayhawk athletes at the hall's training tables.

After a year in Lawrence, the couple decided to move again, spending parts of the next five or six years in Boulder, Colo., Hays and West Palm Beach, Fla.

``We moved around a lot,'' Johnson said.

In 1966, the Johnsons headed for Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, a port city along the Red Sea where a Salina-based engineering firm was building highways. Jerry Johnson had signed a two-year contract to work on location.

``It was such a cultural shock,'' she said. ``The dust and the dirt and everyone in these long white robes.''

The couple and their children, Jennifer and Justin, lived in an American and British housing compound and, because of the threat of disease, had to boil their water and wash their produce with a mix of water and bleach.

When the contract was up, in 1968, they moved back to Lawrence. Her youngest son, Jeff, was born in 1969, and she began her career at KU in 1971, working part-time in the academic affairs office. She made the switch to the chancellor's office in 1973.


At that time, Johnson did her typing on a so-called ``mag card'' model, which made use of magnetic cards to reproduce type.

``The technology has changed so much from then until now,'' Johnson said. ``Now you have computers and it's just wonderful.''

After getting divorced, Johnson worked part-time until 1974, when Jeff started kindergarten. From that day on, she became the chancellor's office.

Budig, who left KU in 1994 to take over as president of baseball's American League, called her ``invaluable.''

Johnson ``has been an important member of the University of Kansas family for many, many years,'' Budig said Wednesday from New York. ``She has humanized the campus for thousands of students, parents, faculty, staff and graduates. ... The university and its people are in her debt.''

Echoed Dykes: ``There would be no way to adequately measure her contributions while I was chancellor.''

Johnson's penchant for remembering people and names, Dykes said, helped to keep him on his toes.

``She was a remarkable person,'' said Dykes, now the chairman of a venture capital company in Nashville, Tenn. ``And I would consider her one of the finest persons with whom I have ever worked.''

Johnson's last official day is April 3. A reception will be held for her April 1 at the chancellor's residence.

Johnson said she plans to spend the bulk of the spring and summer playing golf to keep herself busy but will find time to miss her ``family'' at KU.

``There's not a lot of turnover,'' Johnson said, noting longtime administrative colleagues Sandy Patchen and Debbie Walker. ``Everybody just works so well together.''

A search committee currently is reviewing applications for a replacement, but no one could replace Johnson's years of knowledge on the inner-workings of the university's nerve center.

``Few know the University of Kansas any better than Jane Johnson,'' Budig said. ``She has seen it and its complex operations from a front row seat.''

Part and parcel to that knowledge are tons and tons of KU secrets. Naturally, those will stay locked deep in the banks of her memory.

``You never realize what's going on behind the scenes ... somebody told me I should write a book,'' Johnson said. ``I'll take my little vault home with me.''

-- Matt Gowen's phone message number is 832-7222. His e-mail address is

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