Search JMU Web | Find JMU People | Site Index   

A Professor’s Tragic Death

Untitled Document
Portrait of Professor Johnston
Professor Johnston's previously-damaged portrait has been restored and will be hung during the Centennial celebration

On a May afternoon in 1927, what began as a day of fun for faculty and students ended in the tragic death of one of the State Normal School's most popular professors.

A college field day had been scheduled as a means for faculty and students to interact outside of the classroom.

One of events for the day was a baseball game, matching a “Black and Blue” team of faculty men and Normal School students. The game, however, caused an injury that would ultimately claim the life of Professor James C. Johnston.

Johnston, a popular professor of chemistry and physics, was chosen as team captain for the professors. At some point during the game Professor Johnston severely fractured his right ankle and was forced to seek medical attention. At the time, the students and other faculty members were certain the injury was a common sports accident and assumed Professor Johnston would be back on his feet in no time. But events took a drastic turn in the next month.

Shortly after fracturing his ankle, Johnston developed a high fever that eventually turned into pneumonia. Friends and family recalled that Johnston's condition continued to show improvement, but on June 18, he died suddenly at his home.

The Harrisonburg newspaper and many Harrisonburg residents attributed Johnston's sudden illness and death to his fractured ankle, but the cause of his initial fever was never determined.

He left behind his wife of 16 years, Althea Loose Johnston, and five young children. Mrs. Johnston was also a member of the faculty and had been on the Normal School's original faculty in 1909. (See “From the Normal School to JMU” at http://www.jmu.edu/centennialcelebration/johnston.shtml )

Students returned from summer vacation in September of 1927 to find that one of their favorite professors had passed away. Johnston was not only a popular instructor, he was also active in many campus events and programs. In March, 1914, he was “general” of a faculty and student team in a snowball battle which became legendary.

The students knew they could both have fun with him and count on him for leadership in campus events. He encouraged them to start a new literary club in 1914 and became the first advisor to the Stratford Literary Society (now the Stratford Players). Professor Johnston directed plays and advised club activities until 1921.

Johnston contributed his energy and leadership to the college's administration as well as student activities. It was not just the students who knew they could count on him. When the Spanish “Grippe” (influenza) epidemic struck campus in 1918 and President Burruss “became laid up with the grippe,” Johnston was called in to serve as temporary president from October through November until the president returned to his office.

Before he started teaching at the Normal School, Johnston was the principal of Harrisonburg High School. In the Normal School's first session, 1909-1910, students traveled to Harrisonburg High to take courses under Professor Johnston. The next year, he joined the Normal School faculty.

In his spare time he refereed the college's intramural basketball games, which is how he met his future wife, Althea Loose.

Students described Professor Johnston as a versatile professor who was knowledgeable in subjects ranging from English and mathematics to science and foreign languages. He was passionate about teaching chemistry and physics.

Johnston Hall, completed in 1928 and located near the JMU Quadrangle, was named for Professor Johnston at the suggestion of faculty and student. In 1980, the JMU Board of Visitors voted to extend the building's name to include Mrs. Johnston.

Page from 1928 yearbook
Dedication page from the 1928 yearbook