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A tribute to MIT's Howard Johnson

This story ran on page E1 of the Boston Globe on June 1, 1999.

It is a dangerous thing to describe a single man as having decisively shaped present-day Boston. How can any one individual be said to have had a pervasive impact on so various and complicated a place?

But if there is such a person, his name is Howard Johnson, former president and chairman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And though the results of myriad little decisions as a leader of corporate boards, foundations, museums and government agencies add up to influence of remarkable force -- more of which in a moment -- he is best remembered for One Big Thing.

At a critical time in the late 1960s, Johnson stood up to the forces of campus rebellion at MIT. Many university presidents were destroyed by the troubles. Only Edward Levi, University of Chicago president, had comparable success guiding his institution to a position of greater strength and unity after the turmoil.

Levi went on to serve as US attorney general in the aftermath of Watergate. Johnson exerted his influence in more subtle ways. Both men came to symbolize the power of the center to build consensus: for increased participation by women and minorities, and heightened environmental awareness. And as improbable as it is for a man who moved so effectively behind the scenes for 40 years, now Johnson has written a book, Holding the Center: Memoirs of a Life in Higher Education.

It has a foreward by John Reed, the MIT alum who runs Citicorp. A leitmotif concerns Johnson's extraordinarily successful collaborations with General Motors's Alfred Sloan, Dupont's Crawford Greenewalt, and the Lazarus family of Federated Department Stores.

And though the story of the tumult of the 1960s are the hinge upon which the book turns, its highlights are the parts of the narrative before and after. Its most valuable contents may be a pair of short lists of maxims -- themselves worth the asking price for many managers.

Like many of his generation (he was born to a Scandinavian family on Chicago's South Side in 1922), Johnson was heavily influenced by his experiences during World War II -- in his case, service in the First European Civil Affairs Regiment, an Anglo-American unit sent in to southern France in the summer of 1944 to govern Vichy France.

After the 23-year-old "Maire de Montpellier" mustered out, it was only a few short steps to the University of Chicago Business School; then, in 1954, to the School of Industrial Management at MIT. By 1959 he was dean. When in 1965 he accepted a six-figure offer to become executive vice president of Federated, MIT made him president instead.

During his tenure, Johnson offered no bluster, only reason. He stood up with equal perpendicularity to long-haired rads and the hectoring columnist Joseph Alsop. When presidents elsewhere were being forced into early retirement, he stayed on to pick Jerome Wiesner, Paul Gray and Charles Vest as his inheritors. Even Harvard sought his counsel (though he doesn't mention it); but his friend Robert Solow declined the offer.

All the while, Johnson was exercising power in other venues. It was in 1968, for instance, that, as a director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, he preferred Frank Morris to Paul Volcker as president, and led the fight to circumvent the Board of Fed Governors' wish that a new bank be located on the outskirts of town, preferably on I-495.

Morris served the region for 20 highly successful years. And the presence of a new Fed building across from South Station created a new axis for the city, which promptly began to grow eastward to the water.

Johnson also was the driving force behind MIT's decision to create the Whitehead Institute -- the development which, more than any other in the last 30 years, has assured Boston's place in the front ranks of biotech research.

In the years when he ran MIT, Johnson was frequently asked whether he was related to the real Howard Johnson -- that is, the ice cream magnate, who franchised his orange roofs and "28 flavors" for considerable fame and wealth. A friend introduced the two men, and they began dining out with their wives occasionally at the Ritz.

At last the restaurateur returned from one of his ocean voyages to report disconsolately that he had been asked whether he were related to the real Howard Johnson -- the famous university president.

Reprinted courtesy of the Boston Globe.

A version of this article appeared in the June 9, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 43, Number 33).

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