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‘Why don’t we put Marilou there?’

Johnson’s 32-year career at JMU spanned multiple roles

marilou johnson receives award
Johnson receives a Woman of Distinction award from President Linwood H. Rose.

SUMMARY: When the College of Arts and Letters needed an assistant dean for the 1995-96 academic year, a professor colleague convinced Marilou Moore Johnson ('80) to apply for the position. That decision started Johnson on a path toward a distinguished career in administration at her alma mater, culminating in the President’s Purple Star Award for Career Achievement in 2020.

By Janet Smith (’81)

Sesame Street was well established as a children’s television exemplar, and “I wanted to be Big Bird,” Marilou Moore Johnson (’80) said of her plans when she enrolled at JMU in 1977.

Before the days when creating one’s personal academic path was more accepted, Johnson was unknowingly building curriculum in which she merged course work in communication arts and education with an eye toward working in children’s media and studying television’s reach.

An opportunity to visit the offices of the Children’s Television Workshop, the creators of Sesame Street, during a summer trip to New York City, made her decide the program wasn’t for her. And advice from an internship supervisor at public television station WVPT in Harrisonburg spurred her to consider graduate school and, ultimately, a role in higher education.

“I come from a long line of teachers, my grandmothers, my great aunts,” Johnson said. “I’m not sure that I knew all the other options out there for me professionally.”

Marilou Johnson teaching
Johnson teaching a class in the School of Media Arts and Design

A path from JMU—she earned a Bachelor of Science in communication arts degree in three years—led to Arkansas State University, where she earned a Master of Science in Mass Communication, taught video production and broadcast newswriting, and met her future husband, George Johnson. Through a series of fortunate occurrences, George taught at JMU in 1984-85 and was again hired in 1988 to teach in the Department of Communication. This time, Marilou, who was completing a Ph.D. in communications at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, joined him on the faculty, the beginning of a 32-year career at her alma mater.

Teaching and student advising in the School of Media Arts and Design was the focus of her first decade at the university. Her first brush with administration was as a member of the JMU Faculty Senate and its Curriculum Committee. That service, coupled with work on one of her college’s committees, drew the attention of the dean of the College of Arts and Letters, the late Richard F. Whitman.

Whitman’s college, encompassing 14 schools and departments, a public broadcasting station and a Media Production Center, needed an assistant dean, a role Johnson almost didn’t apply for. A colleague encouraged her to consider the position, which called for experience in curriculum, communication, faculty development and working with committees. Whitman selected Johnson and “that started me on a path,” she said.

“He was a wonderful mentor,” Johnson said of Whitman. “As I took on other roles, I realized I had watched a really gifted leader. He also gave me wings.”

Marilou Johnson with student
Advising a student in her role as associate dean of the College of Arts and Letters

From that first administrative position, Johnson was asked to take on others. She was associate dean of the college, while concurrently serving separate stints as interim director of the Institute for Technical and Scientific Communication, School of Music and School of Art and Art History.

In October 2004, Johnson became interim dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts, serving until June 2008, when the late George Sparks came to JMU as dean. One of his first decisions was to appoint Johnson as associate dean. Together, they administered a college of creative people while working with design and fundraising professionals to make the Forbes Center for the Performing Arts a reality in 2010. 

Johnson returned to SMAD, this time as director, for one year before becoming vice provost for faculty and curriculum in 2015. In a pattern that was familiar to her, she was called on to serve as interim dean of JMU Libraries from March 2018 until July 2019.

“JMU is a gem,” Johnson said. “Faculty have such great ideas and abilities, and we have tremendous talent here. People have such a creative spirit and the university provides space for people to innovate.”

Marilou Johnson at the mic
Speaking at a reception for the JMU Opera Theatre production of Die Fledermaus

She believes her career is evidence of that environment. “In many instances, it was just somebody who believed in me—Dick Whitman, [Provost] Doug Brown, [Vice Provost] Teresa Gonzalez and many others—who said, ‘Why don’t we put Marilou there?’ But what I always knew, those leaders had my back.”

“In her many years at James Madison University, the higher education landscape has radically changed, and Dr. Johnson has skillfully adapted with it, rising to each and every challenge,” said Heather Coltman, provost and senior vice president for Academic Affairs. “She quietly uplifts her colleagues, never seeking the spotlight, and she empowers everyone.”

In retirement, Johnson and her husband continue to support JMU. In 2005, she and George established the Blanche Garrett Memorial Endowment for Scholarship in Media Arts and Design to honor the memory of Marilou’s great aunt, who studied at JMU during summer terms in 1918 and 1919. Their daughter, Callie Miller (’08), continues the faculty connection with JMU as a professor of engineering. Their daughter, Caitlin Hawes (’11), and Marilou’s brothers, Dr. French Moore III (’78) and Garrett Moore (’85), are also JMU alumni.

Johnson’s many contributions to JMU were recognized in August 2020 when she received the President’s Purple Star Award for Career Achievement. “The career that I’ve had at this institution is the career that most people have by going from institution to institution,” Johnson said. “It’s been a privilege to have a variety of meaningful experiences.”



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Published: Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Last Updated: Tuesday, May 25, 2021

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