Magazine Feature / People

Johnston touched thousands of lives, colleagues say

James “JJ” Johnston thought if you were going to connect with students, it was probably a good idea to first learn their names.

Johnston made it a point to learn the names of every student during the first week of class, even filing note cards with biographical information for each student he had over the years — all 30,000 of them.

Johnston, a longtime Daniels College of Business professor who taught the popular business law class for 60 years, died Aug. 6 at a Denver hospice. He was 86.

“It [was] not unusual for him to not only know the students, the year in which he or she graduated, but also know where that student sat and in which class, even over 30 years ago,” Professor Mark Levine recalls. Levine says his friend and colleague of more than 33 years had a remarkable record in “influencing and shaping the direction” of students, which goes far beyond the elements of tenure and degree of service.

“For many folks, DU is JJ; JJ is DU,” Levine says.

Johnston’s business law class was overwhelmingly popular, students recall, as many admired his frankness and quick wit. Melvin Mogulof (BS ’49) remembers Johnston’s off-color jokes. “We were discussing case law and he says, ‘Half the food and nuts in the world come from California,’” Mogulof says. “Now that I live in California, I understand.”

Beyond the jokes, students remember Johnston as a tough teacher.

Johnston was the first to say his class’ popularity did not result from easy grading. “I am not proud of my low overall grades, but I demand a lot from my students and for them to get an A or B they must excel,” Johnston wrote in a self-evaluation in late 1974. “I do not grade on a curve but set my standards and they must meet it.”

Johnston was born in Estherville, Iowa, on Dec. 29, 1921, and earned a bachelor’s degree and juris doctor at the University of Iowa. In 1945 he moved to Denver in hopes that the drier climate would help his asthma. By the next year, he wound up with a teaching job (by accident, Johnston would later say) at the University of Denver.

He quickly bonded with students in more ways than one and became a lawyer to many of them. “Most of my students were GIs who had just returned from the service, and many of them had legal problems,” Johnston said in a 2006 interview. “I was the only lawyer they knew.”

He rented a small office near DU’s downtown campus, purchased a typewriter and opened a law practice. With or without payment, he helped students with divorces, leases and other legal matters. His practice grew when students began to refer him to other clients; the University allowed him to teach his courses in the morning and at night to encourage his business.

Professor and colleague Bruce Hutton says having a “personal and professional relationship with students is difficult,” but Johnston managed to do it well. Former student Jim Wiste (BSBA ’68) — who remained in touch with Johnston until his death — is one of many who can testify to that.

“He went from being a teacher to a friend,” Wiste says. “To a lot of people he had a father image,” he says. “He [garnered] a lot of respect.”

Johnston was known for his famous “Good Friday lecture,” an annual lesson he taught to students on the anniversary of Jesus’ death in which he examined the legal implications of the trial of Jesus before the Great Sanhedrin and then before the Roman court of Pontius Pilate.

“Jesus was a rabble-rouse who was considered a real nut. He was a threat to the Sanhedrin, because he wasn’t one of them,” Johnston told the Denver Post in 1984. “He wasn’t on their team. And besides, they were afraid he really was the son of God.”

In 1996, Johnston and his wife, Jean — along with Clinton (BSBA ’49) and Billie Gerlach — established an endowed scholarship fund for general business and accounting students. Since, hundreds of alumni have donated to the fund in Johnston’s name; the fund now stands at more than $1.3 million. That’s just a small example of the influence he has had on his students, his colleagues at Daniels say.

At the time of his retirement from teaching in 2007, Johnston said: “I have always believed that there is a heaven on earth and in the hereafter,” he says. “My life at DU was a little bit of heaven.”

In addition to his wife Jean, Johnston is survived by daughter Jennifer. He was preceded in death by sons Jay and Jeffrey.

[Editor’s note: This article was updated on Aug. 7.]

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