Magazine Feature / People

Personal connections are the joy for Johnston

After 60 years of teaching—on three campuses and under nine chancellors—Daniels College of Business Professor James “JJ” Johnston administered his last test in June.

Johnston, who taught business law at DU since 1946, will remain with Daniels for the next year as a special adviser to Dean Karen Newman.

The son of an Iowa lawyer, Johnston earned an undergraduate degree in political science and a law degree from the University of Iowa.

Johnston moved to Denver in the fall of 1945—not for a job, but with hopes that the drier climate would help his asthma. He soon met James Price, dean of the University’s law and business schools. Price offered Johnston a job teaching torts and contracts for $300 per quarter.

“Price told me I could choose to teach under the business school or the law school,” Johnston says. “But he warned me that if I taught in the law school, all of my students were future competitors.

“In business, all of my students were potential clients.”

And clients they were.

“Most of my students were GIs who had just returned from the service, and many of them had legal problems,” Johnston says. “I was the only lawyer they knew.”

Johnston, who was then living at the YMCA, borrowed a card table and two chairs and rented a small office space near the downtown DU campus. With some of his first earnings he purchased a Royal typewriter and opened his law practice, helping his students with divorces, business incorporation, leases and other legal matters.

“I went from knowing nobody in Colorado to meeting 300 people a year, all through word of mouth from my students,” Johnston says. “I’ve had literally thousands of clients over the years, and I can trace every one of them back to a student connection.”

According to Johnston, DU was always very supportive of his law practice. The University allowed him to teach courses early in the morning and at night so his schedule never conflicted.

Students would take classes from 8 a.m. to noon every day, go to work at noon and return for evening classes at 5:30 p.m., often studying late into the night.

“My class had so much to cover that we started at 7:30 a.m. instead of 8,” Johnston says. “I never heard a complaint, and I never had any absences. The GIs were so hungry to learn.”

From his very first class, Johnston made it a point to connect personally with each student, memorizing each name and collecting biographical information from each person he taught. Johnston still has the biographical notecards from the 30,000 students he worked with over the years. He estimates that he is still in touch with more than 200 former students and their families.

“Students often shared very personal information with me,” Johnston says. “The fun of teaching was at its height when I was one-on-one with students, helping them with their problems.”

Daniels Assistant Professor Corey Ciocchetti took a business law class from Johnston while he was working on his undergraduate degree at DU in 1996.

“JJ is the reason I am a lawyer today,” Ciocchetti says. “He was tough, but nice. [Years later] he even remembered where I sat in class.

“We used to sing the DU fight song in class—he taught us to have pride in our school.”

Over his 60 years at the University, Johnston says he enjoyed bringing real-world lessons into the classroom—lessons he learned in his law practice.

“I always was very conscious to be an example of ethics and integrity to my students,” he says.

In 1993, Johnston and his wife, Jean, established an endowed scholarship fund for general business and accounting students with a $10,000 gift. Peter Firmin from the school of accountancy raised additional funds for the endowment, which now totals more than $1.1 million.

While Johnston will remain at DU for the next year, representing the school as an alumni and community ambassador, he says he will miss working with students on a daily basis.

“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.

“I never had a bad day when I was working with young people.”

Johnston was honored at a Daniels reception June 13.

This article originally appeared in The Source, July/August 2006.

Comments are closed.