In 1971, Richard Johnson gave us a tour of the old dairy barns at Cal Poly. As this lean “cowboy with a bow tie” led us past rows of agricultural equipment, a string of barn cats followed him.
We asked if Richard liked cats, and he said, “I don’t, but they keep the rodent population down.” The cats were following Richard because he fed them every morning.
The incident epitomized Richard and his wife, Marjory. They were ceaselessly doing acts of goodness behind the scenes, never wishing to take credit.
Richard, who died recently, came to Cal Poly to teach animal husbandry in 1950.
When he was the head of the Animal Science Department from 1967 to 1985, the department had about 25 faculty members. There was an unbelievable number of activities, including supervising student “enterprise” projects and managing facilities that were spread throughout the large campus.
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Richard would schedule his own classes from 7 to 8 a.m., so he could give his undivided attention to teaching. Richard told us many times that he “didn’t like administrative duties, but someone had to do them.”
Joe Sabol recalled that when Richard “retired” as head of the department in 1985, he loved to say that he “stepped back up to teaching.”
Rob Rutherford recalls, “The chalkboard would be full of carefully drawn words and pictures — always in multiple colors — which served as the outline of discussion for that day. Most of us could not even try to duplicate what he put into the art of teaching.”
Richard’s artistic abilities enhanced many classrooms besides his own. He passed along carefully drawn, colored sketches on “butcher paper” to other faculty. In an age before Adobe and PowerPoint, that was an immense gift.
Following his retirement, Richard’s murals and giant book covers of Dr. Seuss and other authors graced the Children’s Room at City Library. His personal favorite was a series of murals based on the life of runner Wilma Rudolph, who overcame polio and racism to win three Olympic gold medals.
From 1940 to 1942, while studying at Iowa State University, Richard was paid by a Works Progress Administration-related agency to do drawings in support of classroom education and textbooks in Ames, Iowa.
John Stechman, Richard’s office mate said, “Richard always maintained an objective, controlled, gentlemanly demeanor under all circumstances and confrontations with everyone, especially with thoughtless students of his. Good ‘ole’ Richard, patient but direct and reasoned, always impressed me.
“For example, a student pops into the office in the morning and inquires of Mr. Johnson, ‘Are we gonna do anything important in our lab today?’ ... ‘Are we having that quiz in class today?’ asked another student. ‘Yes, we are,’ responded Richard. ‘Well, what if I miss it,’ the student inquired. ‘Are you coming to class?’ retorted Richard. ‘Yes, I guess I will’ concluded the student.”
Richard and John would laugh over some of the responses to quiz questions: “Why do we castrate ram lambs?” answered with, “So they don’t have any human nature desires and eating is first priority.”
In 1952, Richard took over the Intercollegiate Livestock Judging program at Cal Poly. Students had to undergo rigorous classes before they could enter the selection to compete on the team. Teams would go to the Pacific International Livestock Show in Portland, Ore., the Cow Palace in San Francisco, the Golden Spike National Livestock Show in Ogden, Utah, and the National Western Livestock Show in Denver.
Participants practiced judging and giving oral reasons, acquiring the skills necessary to fully participate in the livestock industry.
In the process of becoming a team member, young students grew up in many ways, became connected to the real world of the livestock industry, learned professionalism, and built self-confidence.
The judging program, like all programs at Cal Poly then, was run on a shoestring. Getting to venues like Denver involved driving personal automobiles over pre-interstate, two-lane highways. Richard recalled that on one long trip, he and the students took turns driving while the others slept. He woke up to find the car in a spin about to turn over into a snowdrift.
Everyone got out of the car, unhurt. Richard stood by as the students turned the car upright, and everyone went on their way. It was just one more instance of “learn by doing.”
In 1953, Richard’s second year as coach, Cal Poly was the first team to win the “West Coast Triple Crown (Portland, San Francisco and Ogden).”
Cal Poly’s longtime president, Julian McPhee, couldn’t have been more pleased.
This column is special to The Tribune. Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association. Liz Krieger is a retired children’s librarian for the San Luis Obispo County Library.