Robert Stevens, Contributing Writer
On July 25, the Utica College community lost one of its finest. Former Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs John Johnsen passed away at his summer home in Maine.
Born in Middletown, Ohio, Johnsen impacted many who had the opportunity to be in his presence. He worked his way to earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in anthropology at Case Western Reserve University and later his doctorate degree from the University at Buffalo.
In the fall of 1977, Johnsen made a decision that would follow him into his passing. He joined the Utica College as he began his tenure as an instructor of anthropology. From there, he continued to move through the ranks as Dean of the School of Business and the School of Arts and Sciences, to Provost and concluding as Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs until his retirement in 2018.
Johnsen was a friend and a mentor to those around him during his 41 years at UC. President Laura Casamento was one of those bonds. She both admired and respected his efforts in the variety of passions he pursued.
“The one word I would use to describe John is solid,” Casamento said. “He was just a mentor for so many people. When things were frustrating me, I could just knock on John’s door.”
Casamento worked alongside Johnsen for a handful of years before his retirement. He helped in her transition into higher education and was always there to help lead the charge no matter the feat, including protocols that have helped the school in today’s COVID-19 pandemic.
“He was always pushing,” Casamento said. “Resources might have been tight, but he knew we had to be an institution that sets up an infrastructure to keep people safe. Now look at where we are with COVID and the things we have been able to establish. I just think back to the other day. I looked up to the sky and said, ‘Thanks, John.’”
During his time at Utica College, Johnsen was constantly fighting for his students and children in the surrounding Utica community. Johnsen was involved with the Young Scholars Partnership Program at Utica College. It was there that he worked alongside the current Executive Director of Young Scholars, Pamela Matt.
“He was a man born ahead of the world,” Matt said. “He set an example and at the top of Utica College. He pulled people through his presence and his words.”
The Young Scholars Partnership Program at Utica College has been a piece of the Utica campus for 28 years. According to the program’s website, the initiative is meant to keep students in school, pass their state exams, and pursue higher education.
“I consider Provost Johnsen the father of Young Scholars,” Matt said. “It was his baby. He wanted to hear about everything that was going on in the program and the stories from the students.”
With Johnsen’s many roles at Utica College, he used them all as tools to fight social and racial injustices. He emphasized diversity among all members in Utica. Halina Lotyczewski, executive director of the Center for Career and Professional Development, was touched by his constant fight for all voices and her encounters with him were evidence.
“The first time he greeted me in Polish was a pleasant and unexpected surprise that I have always remembered,” Lotyczewski said. “He used his influence to advocate for students, faculty and staff. He ensured that his own success was measured by the service that he could be to others.”
Casamento spoke adamantly of Johnsen’s efforts to make Utica’s diversity one of its biggest strengths. She talked about how even with his busy schedule, he always found time to be there.
“He was there beating the drums and saying, ‘Let’s go. The time is now, and Utica has an important role to play,’” Casamento said. “John really believed in the value and power of free speech and our role in that. He believed that our role was taking diverse ideas and perspectives and fleshing them out to seek truth.”
After his passing, some members of the UC community aim to continue what he started.
“I believe that he is still with us,” Matt said. “We are going to make him proud.”