P. L. JOHNSON:
The Man As Seen through the Eyes of His Grandson
Robert L. Johnson
It gives me great joy to present a remembrance of my paternal grandfather, the man with whom I spent considerable time from the years of childhood through my early twenties. He was a person of keen insight, strong convictions, unusual energy, and considerable talent Ė a person altogether resourceful and optimistic. Although this piece will without doubt reflect the bias of an admiring descendant, it is my hope that its descriptions will help highlight this man, who in many important ways contributed to Hastings College in its formative years, helping it to become the institution we know and admire today.
Christened "Pleasant Lee Johnson," my grandfather was known by friends as "P. Lee," "Lee," or most commonly as "PL." The name reflects the familyís Quaker heritage, and his ancestors were, indeed, prominent Quakers, who helped to establish a Quaker Church and Academy at Liberty, Indiana, in the early nineteenth century. "PL," born in Appanoose County, Iowa, was the third in a family of five children. It is interesting to note the importance education played in that family, with four of the five siblings receiving Bachelorís degrees, and "PL" adding to his educational experience a Masterís degree, which, like his Baccalaureate degree, was earned at the University of Iowa. Two of "PLís" sisters attended Hastings College, one graduating there; and one of his nieces, Ruth Johnson Fuhr, spent much of her life at Hastings College as a faculty member and the wife of Hayes M. Fuhr, long-time Head of the Music Department. Her coming to Hastings was a direct result of "PLís" recruiting efforts at a time when the College needed an instructor in piano. The outstanding contribution of the Fuhrs to Hastings College and this area might never have happened had it not been for Ruth Johnsonís arrival.
Physically, "PL" was tall, lean, hardy, and athletic. In college he was the catcher on the Hawkeye baseball team, disdaining the use of either face mask or catcherís mitt. In 1888 he organized the first Bronco football team and arranged for the first ever Hastings College football game (with Doane College) the next year. He was also the Hastings "singles" tennis champion for much of the 1890s and, with his brother-in-law, won the State "doubles" championship in 1896. He was, furthermore, instrumental in the building of the first two gymnasiums at Hastings College, as well as its tennis courts. It is known that on at least one occasion he rode a bicycle to Lincoln in one day, long before there were any hard-surfaced roads or multiple-speed bikes! He was a devoted church member, and was also instrumental in the founding of the Hastings YMCA.
My grandfather had little use for ostentation. Social niceties and protocol received small notice from him, or others in pioneering societies, most of whom, when considering any important enterprise, went directly to the heart of the matter at hand. "PL" walked a lot and was famous for jaywalking. He believed that "a straight line was the shortest distance between two points," and he walked and worked on that principle. This is not to say that he was unmindful of others, for he had a genuine interest in people from many different backgrounds. While at times he had occasion to deal with persons in high places, title, rank, or position meant little to him. What mattered was a personís motives, integrity, and purpose.
"PLís" interests were many and varied. He was an agriculturist, owning and managing farmland from Hastings into Eastern Colorado. Because his only child, my father Bedford Johnson, chose to farm near Hansen, Grandfather often came to the farm, planting trees, tending his rather large garden, and carrying out other projects. The first money I ever earned (probably twenty-five cents) was from helping him weed the garden! Sometimes my mother and "PL," both persons with strong wills, clashed over his unannounced and undiscussed activities at the farm. This father-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship erupted into spirited disagreement at times. Underneath that tension, however, there remained mutual respect and affection.
"PL" strongly supported the idea of irrigation in Nebraska and entered into the long-running effort for the approval of the Tri-County, now the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District. He spent at least two years hand digging a 150-foot well on our farm, with the aid of some Hastings College students. While not a conventional irrigation well, it was capable of yielding considerably more water than the then-in-use stock wells. He often employed College students to help with different projects he wanted to do. Years later, several of those former HC students have stopped at the farm to see the place where they once worked with "PL."
The First Presbyterian Church also benefited from "PLís" support. He served it in various capacities at a time when that church, as well as the College, was struggling to survive. It is interesting to note that his father-in-law, Robert Brown, was also active, until his death in 1905, at both Hastings College and the First Presbyterian Church. They were a productive pair!
"PL" was a futurist, extremely interested in new ways for doing things and in new ideas and discoveries. He always seemed to think that there might be a better way to do much of what was being done. Immediately upon his Baccalaureate graduation, he taught in Council Bluffs, Iowa. He came to Hastings, first as a land agent, then moved to a career in banking, before going to nearly full-time activity on behalf of Hastings College. I was never certain as to what was the source of his income. To be sure, life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was austere as compared to today, and possibly the income from his farms was sufficient to support him and his family. I think he seldom, if ever, drew a salary from Hastings College. A favorite story in our family relates to his fund-raising activities on behalf of the College. He would start out with no money, and when asked about the situation his reply was "If I canít raise enough to pay my way, I shouldnít leave town."
My relationship with my grandfather was very close. As I mentioned earlier, I was often with him on the farm. As we worked together, we talked about many things. He taught me much, and we were very comfortable together. Our relationship remained that way throughout his life. We talked about farming, politics, the church, athletics, family, the community, and always, of course, about Hastings College. He treated me as an equal, as he did all people. He was inclusive in his viewpoint and much more inclined to praise others for good works than to criticize their actions. Seldom, if ever, did he look for credit for things he had accomplished.
There was little, if anything, "flashy" about "PL." He dressed plainly and lived simply at the family home on the Northwest corner of Ninth Street and Kansas Avenue. He avoided the spotlight, yet if there was a worthy cause or a need unmet, he would be there to help. I know it is true that during the struggle of many persons and institutions to survive the drought and depression of the 1930s, P. L. Johnsonís efforts on behalf of Hastings College, the First Presbyterian Church, and our family farm were of major significance.
It seems to me that it is perfectly in order for P. L. Johnson to be recognized by Rerum Scriptor as one who provided major leadership, support, and direction to the College in its early years. This institution has become notable throughout the Great Plains region and beyond, and the vision, guidance, and efforts of those early pioneers, including the help of P. L. Johnson, should always be remembered as worthy endeavors that "made the difference."