Arthur Johnson retires after 46 years

Arthur Johnson is putting away his red pen. For the past 46 years at Central, the associate professor of English has corrected the prose of undergraduates, urging them to focus on what he sees as the virtues of writing: simplicity, economy, color and freshness.

Johnson started working at Central in 1968 after a six-year stint teaching at Iowa State University, where he completed his undergraduate work. Johnson also earned a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin, which he describes as “an enormous factory lacking only the smoke. It was a strange thing to come to Central and have absolute strangers say hello to me.”

During his time at Central, Johnson taught a variety of classes including British Novel, Shakespeare, Short Story Writing and Comedy, a class of his own design. “I’ve always liked comedy better than tragedy,” he says, “being an absurd fellow by nature.”

Yet Johnson did not originally intend to study English. He spent four years as a student of architecture and designed houses for relatives before deciding the client/architect relationship wasn’t one he cared to pursue. “What they wanted, I didn’t want,” he says. So Johnson decided to major in history, but when the history adviser didn’t show up for the appointed meeting, he walked downstairs and became an English major instead.

As an English professor, Johnson specialized in teaching students how to write. He is known for the care he took editing papers, meeting face-to-face with students to go through their writing line by line. Johnson says the tutorial method encouraged students to consider more than a grade at the top of a paper. “I always try to give students their money’s worth, whether they want it or not,” he says.

While some students may have shrunk from having a magnifying glass turned on their work, many blossomed from the experience. “He scared some people to death and he made some people want to be better writers,” says Chad Ray, professor of philosophy. “I know him as a colleague with a heart of gold.” Ray says Johnson is “hugely generous,” helping students in need with tuition and encouraging faculty to set up a fund for students.

Johnson says students have not changed much during his time at Central, saying they are always mixtures of excellent and weaker students. As for himself, Johnson found teaching to be a constant learning experience. “You learn far more by teaching than you do sitting in a classroom,” he says.

Former students — or anyone in need of a refresher course on writing — can consult his book on the subject, “Why Nobody Can’t Write Good,” where Johnson lays out the finer points of writing (“Pomposity is not profundity.”), along with amusing examples from past classes and academia. Johnson has also written two novels, the latest set in Jane Austen’s England but focused on the lives of the lower classes.

When not turning deft phrases, Johnson plays chess, reads and pursues hobbies, such as coin collecting and art. In Central’s Jordan Hall, home to the English department, he hung 115 framed prints of paintings he considers important to the history of art. He hopes students may acquire an appreciation of them “just from the friction of walking by.”

Ray says Johnson “loves to turn a good phrase. He loves the English language. He is fearless.”

Johnson is not one to effuse about his accomplishments. “We all write our names in water,” he says. But Johnson’s name is also written in ink — in the red that decorated students’ papers for 46 years and in the improved prose they learned to create. In the interest of economy, we’ll leave it at that.

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  • Lori Wiser '84


    2:43 am on August 8, 2015

    I consider myself fortunate to have been a student of Professor Johnsin’s. Initially I also feared the red pen but learned to embrace it as I improved my skills with every mark and comment. I make my living as a journalist. Each time I finish an assignment I go back to ensure it is clear, concise and the deadwood has been eliminatrd. I know several in my field who fear the blue pen but it’s lessons are minute compared to those in red. Thank you Arthur for those lessons and the time you were willing to invest in me. I trust your retirement will be, at minimum, as rewarding as your career.

    Note to self: liquidate all stock in red pens immediately! 😉

  • Jon Dobernecker


    5:28 pm on August 6, 2015

    I am lucky to have a constant reminder of Art. Some 30 years ago my wife and I bought a trunk from Art and it has sat in our living room since then. I’d already worked with Art for a few years, but on that day I crossed paths with one of the most gracious and interesting people I’ve ever met. For years I, and my Central colleagues, would benefit from his critical thought and direct delivery. When he spoke you knew you would get well thought out ideas always free of any hidden agendas. More than once when sharing relief for the arrival of a weekend he commented wisely (paraphrased poorly here), “The end gets here fast enough by itself, don’t hurry it along.” Here’s to Art and his having a very long, interesting, and joy filled retirement.

  • Kristine Peters Potts '90


    8:45 pm on July 27, 2015

    Prof. Johnson is indeed as kind and generous as he was intimidating to an 18-yr-old wannabe. Thanks to him, I know that good writing is part talent and and a lot of ruthlessly honest editing. Once you realize you can survive entire paragraphs crossed out as ‘deadwood’ and the whole thing still stands, is even improved, something shifts and a new way of writing reveals itself. To-the-bone editing as taught by Mr. Johnson has served me well since. I’m most grateful for what I much later realized was an ad hoc “Jane Austen Prize” in 1988, which came with $100 when I desperately needed it. You are a captain of men, a vessel grim and daring. O heart! And best wishes.

  • Martha Schaefer Brent '90


    10:24 pm on July 26, 2015

    Professor Johnson — you are the best — I remember you would say of your live edits, “don’t think of it as blood – it’s only Mercurochrome.” 🙂 Working as a corporate editor, I have tried to scale your advice. I look for patterns in how folks write. Most often, they bury the headline and rely on adverbs and adjectives to support weak verb choices. All things you taught me.

    Virtual retirement hugs!

    P.S. – Folks at Central, print out these messages for our dear Prof. Unless he’s changed, digital isn’t his thing. 🙂

  • Kristen Haning Kennedy


    10:30 pm on July 24, 2015

    I remember being simultaneously terrified of and inspired by you, Professor Johnson! When you complimented my writing, I was thrilled beyond belief, and I took every red-inked comment to heart because of my respect for you. Please enjoy your retirement knowing that you made such a difference to Central students over the years

  • Douglas Vincent


    9:26 am on July 24, 2015

    I took a number of Arthur Johnson’s courses when at Central in the late 70’s. I am laughing as I read about his infamous red pen; it was a source of great fear, sometimes even tears. But I laugh because that pen was everyone’s nemesis, and certainly the source of my growth in ability to write. I, and some of my friends will remember Johnson with great admiration and respect. He gave me a life-long interest in writing. While I have not…yet…published anything, writing has been my friend and I owe that to Arthur. I was also unaware of the many other contributions he has made over the years which serve only to increase my admiration of him. Arthur, if you are reading this, Thank-you.
    PS: Say hello to Chad Ray for me. I was a Philosophy major, and loved his classes as well.

  • Heidi Johnson Gunderson


    8:34 am on July 23, 2015

    I shall skip the sentimental and wish you a wonderful retirement. Thank you for being an excellent teacher.

  • Susan Kuyper


    11:03 pm on July 22, 2015

    I remember my first class with Arthur Johnson, it well may have been one of his first at Central College. Focused, detailed, demanding, his courses, and I took several, were so rewarding because of how much I learned. Thank you!

  • Jon Harvey


    9:43 pm on July 22, 2015

    I think of him often. Best of luck for what lies ahead.

  • karen regal-johnson, '86


    9:13 pm on July 22, 2015

    Oops, I was always a horrible speller… still am

  • karen regal-johnson, '86


    9:09 pm on July 22, 2015

    Arthur Johnson made me the writer I am today. I have seen him make football players cry, and I cried a few times toaster having him grade my work. But frankly, I learned more from him and keep him in mind every day I use my purple pen to correct under grad writing. Thanks you Mr Johnson for helping me defeat circumbambulatíon and find the joy of writing well and clearly. May retirement be a great time for you.

  • Jim Vernon


    7:11 pm on July 22, 2015

    Arthur Johnson bolstered an already acute love of reading that I have. He also gave me a better understanding and pleasure in reading Shakespeare. Thank you for your guidance and I wish you an enjoyable retirement.

  • Aaron Vermeer, '93


    5:58 pm on July 22, 2015

    He rightly sheared us, and then shaped us. Unquestionably integral to my development as a student and a writer, Mr. Johnson’s retirement is a loss to every student whose writing wallows in the stale, verbose, and elephantine.

  • Heather Gragg


    4:51 pm on July 22, 2015

    One of the best professors I met at Central. I ended up in his classes by word of mouth, which is often when the most interesting things happen to you. Professor Ray is spot on in his comments, surprising no one.

  • Amy Cornelder Gordiejew


    3:51 pm on July 22, 2015

    PS– what the heck does it take to give a guy full professorship? 46 years isn’t enough?!

  • Amy Cornelder Gordiejew


    3:45 pm on July 22, 2015

    I bring up my Art Johnson story every semester in my writing class. He was the best; I owe him so much. In the spirit of avoiding redundancy, I’ll cut the deadwood and simply wish him a very happy retirement.

  • Cathy Hinga Haustein


    3:30 pm on July 22, 2015

    An inspiring teacher and even better, a discerning audience.

  • Michael Schmidt, '74


    3:29 pm on July 22, 2015

    Art Johnson was my inspiration, my mentor, my muse. He is the reason I spent 35 years in the high school classroom teaching students the very same principles of simplicity (Keep it simple Stupid! uh… Students), economy (Keep it brief; make your point and move on!), color (He who lives by the adjective, dies by the adjective!) and freshness (Play with the language!). Over the years I have not had much contact with Art– except at an occasional homecoming– yet even at those rare times, he remembered me and called me by name. Though my contact with Art was fleeting, my students got to know him very well.

  • Cory Nikkel


    2:57 pm on July 22, 2015

    As a freshmen taking his higher level Creative Writing course, I gawked as he slashed my first story attempt from 32 pages to 2. How could a man do such a thing?! Word by word he guided me to the writer I am today and the passion I possess for it. I tell all my own writing students stories about him today–simply because he’s Art and unforgettable and everything he did was for a purpose (just like that series of words). Hats off to a man who gave everything to make anyone better!

  • Ted Longnecker, '87


    2:52 pm on July 22, 2015

    Congratulations to Dr. Johnson!

    I was fortunate to have Dr. Johnson upon arrival on campus my freshman year. Although I experienced an initial fear, his style is similar to a good football coach, but in the English classroom. He helped me break my existing writing habits, and whipped me into shape for any career I would eventually pursue.

    His feedback on “deadwood” and “active voice” are still with me today. My wife and daughter have not met Dr. Johnson, but they hear me tout the benefits of clean and simple active voice writing in my edits of their writing. “Cut out all that deadwood.”


  • Sherill Whisenand


    2:31 pm on July 22, 2015

    Dr. Johnson was my freshman adviser, a curmudgeon wrapped in a teddy bear. He loved my writing. How did I know? It may have red pen marks at the top–but every comment ended in a positive endorsement: “Well-done, but you can do better.” I revered every class of his and took as many courses as my financial aid dollars would allow–and my brain could bear. I grew to love Shakespeare and Shaw, creative writing (and creative editing). Because of Arthur Johnson, I majored in English and Music, later settling on Communications, a field where I make my profession as the Iowa Director for U.S. Congressman David Young. Dr. Johnson, keep the red pen handy. I’m sure you’ll be editing this email tribute–but I would relish the critique. Best wishes in all your future endeavors!

  • Bruce Lear


    2:09 pm on July 22, 2015

    Professor Arthur Johnson taught me how to write! He is both intimidating and caring if those two attributes can be merged. I will never forget his removing the “Deadwood,” from what I thought was a brilliant piece of creative writing. He was correct. Thank you professor for your dedication and your passion.