Senator Robert “Bob” Johnson, who is remembered as one of the premier advocates of New College, passed away on Monday, Aug. 31, after a full day of work. With more than 50 years of passionate and dedicated involvement in the Sarasota community, Sen. Johnson’s impact and legacy will not be forgotten. Johnson would have turned 81 the day after his death.
In his President’s Report, President Donal O’Shea said, “He was an extraordinary human being, whom I was privileged to count as a friend. His was an incredible life, well-lived. He was a force of nature, and the College owes its continued strength and existence to him.”
Sen. Johnson first became involved with New College in the school’s early days. Although he did not yet have a relationship with the college, he was responsible for saving it from economic decline by wedding it to the University of South Florida in 1975, simply to preserve the natural and historic landscaping of the Ringling Estate and Sarasota bayfront. Johnson’s reputation and clout in the legislature was strong enough to truly save New College. In 2001, Johnson told the Catalyst, “The first thing I saw in New College’s place was 18-story condos right next to the Ringling Museum. I resolved to save the school, the museum, and the city from that, and I’ve been involved with New College ever since.” He would later be instrumental in helping New College to become an independent public school.
Johnson was appointed by former Governor Jeb Bush to serve on the Board of Trustees in 2001, the year the college gained independence from USF and was designated a member of the State University System and the honors college for arts and sciences. Johnson served as Chair of the board from 2001 to 2007 and again from 2010 to 2012.
As chairman of the board when New College was just becoming independent, Johnson was an expert at keeping dreams of improving New College in perspective. In 2001, he said, “We’re only limited by our vision, but we have to pay for our ideas. In many ways, New College is like a newborn infant. I know we have to build from scratch. I absolutely see this as a personal challenge, to make the finances work, to get the best students, faculty and administration we possibly can. But we can show the state a lot by going from scratch on the best way to do things. We are small, but the state expects a lot of us, they would like to see New College’s turnout positive so they can replicate it across the state.”
Professor of Humanities and former New College President Gordon “Mike” Michalson worked closely with Sen. Johnson from the time they met in 1992 throughout the “hectic startup period” of independent New College. Michalson remembers them being “joined at the hip” throughout most of his time as president. “I really came to appreciate his strong strategic sense, his genuine commitment to our mission,” Michalson said. “He had a challenging upbringing and somewhere along the way he grew to love the idea of higher education, liberal arts ideals and higher education as a ticket for economic advancement.”
Although he dropped out of high school to help support his family, Sen. Johnson was admitted to Florida State University and later attended law school at the University of Florida. He moved to Sarasota right after graduating and immediately started working. Johnson represented Sarasota in the Florida legislature for 17 years.
“My bottom line has always been to make Sarasota and Manatee the best place in the world to live,” Johnson told the Catalyst in 2001.
Furthermore, Sen. Johnson was instrumental in engineering the purchase of the Car Museum property near the Pei dorms for New College. With a “brilliant” idea to secure a windfall of money by collecting tax dollars on the first of the month rather than the last, Johnson single-handedly allocated the funds to build Jane Bancroft Cook Library. “He asked for a finder’s fee,” Michalson said. “And the finder’s fee was however much it took to build Jane Bancroft Cook Library.” Johnson was integral in helping the college receive funding for building the Heiser Natural Sciences Complex and many other facilities on campus.
Sen. Johnson’s reputation in the state legislature was immensely beneficial to New College. “His legacy includes the positive exposure he brought to New College,” Michalson said. “Bob’s interface with the wider political culture of Florida brought great positive attention to the campus. Having him affiliated with the college has brought us a lot of goodwill.”
Johnson was a strong advocate for the importance of a unique academic program at New College, and was proud to send his grandchildren to attend the school. Michalson remembered seeing Johnson in blue jeans and a toolbelt in Palm Court after helping his granddaughter build a platform bed for her dorm. “He was a very gifted craftsman. He built himself a beautiful home on the Myakka River out in the woods, made out of knotty pine and other bits of wood he collected. A gorgeous place and he did the whole thing himself. How’d he find the time?”
“He just had these hidden depths,” Michalson said about learning that Johnson spent a year at Duke Divinity School studying theology. In their many travels for the college, Michalson said Johnson “would have an anecdote or story about every exit, every little town. It was usually about someone he had helped.”
“I would like people to believe I am dedicated to New College, and that making our city the best means making New College the academic crown jewel of the state of Florida,” Johnson said. “And that means working together, means that if we neglect any one part of what makes New College great, it will fall apart. But right now, and hopefully for a long while, New College does what it does better than any place I know in this nation.”
There is a book in Cook Hall for anyone who would like to leave a message or share a story about Bob. The book will be presented to his family once filled.