Johnson retires after 41 years

After 41 years, Professor Lucy Johnson will be stepping back from her position as a professor to become a Professor Emeritus starting in June. She will still be teaching an occasional class at Vassar. Photo By: Vassar College
After 41 years, Professor Lucy Johnson will be stepping back from her position as a professor to become a Professor Emeritus starting in June. She will still be teaching an occasional class at Vassar. Photo By: Vassar College
After 41 years, Professor Lucy Johnson will be stepping back from her position as a professor to become a Professor Emeritus starting in June. She will still be teaching an occasional class at Vassar. Photo By: Vassar College

Asked what single piece of advice she would like to pass on to past and present Vassar students, anthropology professor Lucy Johnson gave the following pair of words: serendipity and circumstance.

After working as an archaeological anthropologist at Vassar since 1973, Johnson is deciding to step back from some of her duties as a full time faculty member of 41 years.

As Johnson said, “I’m not really retiring. Well I’m going to be Emeritus as of June, but I still have my lab in my office and my research assistant for next year, and I’m also teaching my Technology, Ecology, and Society course in the spring as an Emeritus.”

She said, “I’ve sort of been on phase retirement for the past four years now and I’m just phasing it a little lower now, but I’m still going to be around.”

She reflected on the litany of courses she has instructed Vassar students, saying, “I taught archeology and biological anthropology…My favorite course of all time is Technology, Ecology and Society. I’ve taught it since the first year I was here and it’s been evolving ever since and the version that I’ve been teaching in the past few years, we do a lot of hands on stuff.

She continued, “The students come out to my house and they card spin and weave wool, we make pottery and take it out to my house and fire it, they learn how to make stone tools, and we also make a lot of trips out to local craftspeople.”

Archaeological anthropology was not something Professor Johnson always knew she wanted to go into for her professional career. It took her awhile before she discovered the field.

She said, “I started out as an English major, and after two years I decided I still loved to read but if anyone asked me to analyze another book I’d throw it at them. And at that point I had no idea what I wanted to go into I just knew what I didn’t want to go into.”

Her love for archeology was something Professor Johnson just sort of stumbled upon while in college.

She remembers, “I took a semester off and I got a catalogue for Columbia University, and I checked off all the courses that looked interesting and I counted; the majority of the classes were in anthropology so I started as a junior anthropology major without a single idea even what the word meant.

Two weeks past, and Johnson came to a realization. As she put it, “I took one look at those points and said, ‘I’m going to become an archaeologist and I’m going to study stone tools’ and right there and then, just looking at those things I decided. I’ve never regretted it for an instant.”

Johnson shows not only an intense passion for the work she has done, but even more so for the students with whom she works. When looking back at her experience as a Vassar professor, she said, “One of the richest parts of my job is being able to help students find out who they are, what they want to do, how they want to build their lives.”In her over 40 years of teaching at Vassar, some moments still stick out. She has always valued the connections she has forged with he students. “The best memories are definitely students. The students I’ve had have just been marvelous and it’s such fun to watch them grow and develop and take off to do their own things,” said Johnson. “One of the things I’ve always tried to do is to be as a good a teacher as I can be but also be a good mentor for my students.”

Later, when former students return, Johnson will see the growth for herself. “And having them come back and say ‘yes, you did that’, ten or twenty years out, is really very gratifying, and I know that I’ve really done what I’ve hoped to do in my career here,” said Johnson.

One of her research assistants, Sarah Mincer ‘15, has experienced a fair share of those memories with Johnson. Mincer wrote in an emailed statement, “The first summer I worked with her, one of our members had wandered a little too far, and we wanted to make sure that they didn’t get lost. Rather than calling their name or trying to look for them, Johnson makes a spot on impression of a gorilla, getting louder and louder with every howl.”

Mincer continued, “This moment really set the tone for how the rest of our time together has gone: always get the work done, but find a way to make it enjoyable.”

Johnson knows a little something about life too, given the wide range of experiences she’s had, and is more than willing to share her wisdom with others. “Take advantage of serendipity and circumstance. Your career is highly unlikely to go the way you think it’s going to go right now but don’t be afraid of change,” she said. “Don’t be afraid if an opportunity presents itself, don’t be afraid to take it. If a circumstance seems to block your way, think of a way around it or think of something else to do.”

She continued, “ I think I’ve given [students] some good advice over the years on how to meet change, how to let yourself grow, how to adapt to really nasty things that are going to happen to you, because life is not always going to be so nice to you, but you either brush it off or you do something about it if something is really bad. You can’t let bad things eat you, that is just not a good thing to do.”

Mincer also personally vouches for the impact Johnson has had in her academic career. Writing in an emailed statement, Mincer said of Johnson, “She is so passionate about everything she does, and always tries to share that passion with everybody around her. Professor Johnson has given me the push that I needed to figure out what I’m passionate about and how to pursue that….she is the reason I am pursuing a career in anthropology.”

Professor Johnson has big plans as an Emeritus, which first involves relaxing a little as well as traveling the globe. She said, “In the fall, my husband and I are going to New Zealand and Australia for six weeks, just for fun. You know, I can’t do that when I’m full time.”

She also plans to continue the several projects and organizations she’s already currently involved in. “I’m working with a number of local environmental organizations…I’m chair of the steering committee for The Environmental Consortium of Hudson Valley Colleges and Universities, I’m the President of the board of the Hudson River Environmental Society, and I’m on the steering committee of Sustainable Hudson Valley,” listed Johnson.

Professor Johnson has a hard time ever picturing herself not here at Vassar. She said, “For one thing I’d have to move all these books, but I mean I suppose eventually I could leave…but as long as the department will let me have space and the dean will occasionally give me a course, I’ll probably be here.”

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