Robert Johnston was born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and graduated from Pine Bluff High School. From there he would go on, in the words of the National Football Foundation, to “embody the scholar-athlete,” receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree and a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from Rice University. At Rice, he was considered “one of the finest football players in the Southwest Conference” and received the Bob Quin Award for the “senior male athlete who most exemplifies the distinction in sportsmanship, leadership, service to the university, scholarship, and athletics.” Johnston graduated at the top of his class at Rice—a member of the Dean’s list and chair of the Honor Council—held several positions in student government, and participated in the ROTC. When he graduated from Rice, he was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys but took a different path after receiving a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University, where he earned another BA degree as well as a Master of Arts degree. Also while at Oxford, “Johnston lettered in basketball, participated in rowing and rugby, all while receiving degrees in economics, politics, and philosophy.”
When he returned to the US, Johnston served his country as an Army Ranger and paratrooper and taught at West Point for three years. Then-Governor Bill Clinton named Johnston chair of the Public Service Commission, and he served for eight years as a member of the Arkansas State House of Representatives. Johnston was an international consultant for the US, traveled extensively, and lived and worked for a time in Ukraine, Armenia, and Indonesia. He was said to find great joy in learning about other cultures.
Even as a child, Johnston embraced racial and cultural diversity, believing that people should love and respect one another despite their differences. Not merely a belief, but a practice, Johnston “lived a life of service full of love and humility,” dedicating a lifetime of private and public service to social justice and inclusion.
As George A. Harper shares, referencing his impressive 6’7” frame, “Robert could be aptly characterized as a charismatic gentle giant, intellectually, physically, and spiritually.” His intellectual brilliance and passion for learning matched his compassion for others and gave him the “capacity to not only identify, assess, and understand examples of inequality and oppression, but also to offer practical remedies to address them.” His physical stature “gave him a special prominence in groups and gatherings, [and] provided a wonderful backdrop for his compassion and kindness.” Taking Jesus’ lesson to “love your neighbor” to heart, he championed the rights of the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized, and, as a person of action, he led by example that “it is what we do and not what we believe that is important.” He believed that “God is Love, and he was troubled by fundamentalist religious efforts to co-opt Christianity and the Church.” He was a devoted member of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral and led the Living the Questions Sunday School Class, where he led discussions about scripture, weekly sermons, and current events, and was a strong advocate for interfaith dialogue.
As a professor, Public Service Commission chair, state legislator, and church and community leader, he ensured that every voice was heard and every person was valued and given an opportunity to succeed. He founded the all-volunteer Feed the Hungry organization to provide daily hot meals to the homeless and remained a fierce advocate for their rights, as well as those of minorities, women, and the LGBT community. He was also deeply concerned about wage inequality, especially for people of color and women. The Very Reverend Christoff Keller, III shared that he would receive “weekly admonitions for one threatened or disadvantaged group after the other: Muslims, undocumented immigrants, and Syrian refugees in Europe. ‘What,’ he would ask, ‘were we doing to help—and why not more? Who could we invite to make a presentation on their behalf?’”
Johnston took the responsibilities of citizenship seriously and felt each of us had a duty to learn about and fully participate in our Republic. Johnston wrote frequently to local newspapers and often testified at various state and local hearings, recently arguing against the construction of the Ten Commandments monument at the State Capitol as violating the separation of church and state. “Among his last efforts was a video presentation to the Trinity Cathedral congregation to garner support for the relocation and support of a Syrian refugee family.”
In a testament to his authenticity and humility, “Robert not only talked about the poor, he talked to the poor. He was convinced that God intends that all of his children receive a fair share of creation, including food, shelter, and health care.” He visited homeless individuals frequently, bringing them food, clothing, shoes, and warming supplies, and he even cared for and mentored several homeless men in his own home.
True to his expansive compassion and intellectual understanding, he also recognized the perils of global warming and climate change that we all face and that the poor and oppressed people in the world face disparately more severe harm.
As Harper concludes, “On the morning he died, Robert had sent out an article about the unfair pay to women and particularly women of color. It was a great blessing to know Robert. [Since his death] several people have said, ‘it now takes about 50 people to do what Robert had been doing by himself. We remain exceedingly grateful for his life and service.”
“He lived a life full of love and humility.”
The preceding was drawn primarily from George A. Harper’s wonderful nomination of Dr. Johnston and biographical information from the National Football Foundation, with our thanks. For more on Dr. Johnston, please see his Arkansas Democrat-Gazette obituary (mobile version), Arkansas Times Blog by Max Brantley, and his bio for his 1962 Bob Quin Award