Professors Emeritus Jerry and Jeanne Johnson give back to support science students

Future math students will have much more support thanks to the generosity of Jerry and Jeanne Johnson. Jerry Johnson, who served as a mathematics professor at the university for 21 years and as university chairman for six years, and his wife Jeanne, who taught in the university’s department of anthropology, have generous endowments to support students in the mathematics department and the college of science.

“This is an important gift that will transform the college,” said Donna Knotek, director of development for the College of Science. Jerry Johnson’s reasons for this gift are personal.

“I was almost unable to go to college myself because my family didn’t have the money,” Johnson said. “It was close. I still have a warm spot in my heart for students who really want to go and are serious about it but are struggling to afford it. That’s the purpose of the foundation, to help those students who really need the money. Not necessarily the best students, but those who really need help.”

The eligibility requirements for scholarships created by the foundation include a 3.4 GPA.

“I think that’s an indication that the students are working and trying,” Johnson said. “When they’re short on cash, there’s a lot of stress. They may be concerned about their resources and may need to keep a job, which I did.”

Johnson, who worked at Oklahoma State University before coming to the University of Nevada, Reno, said he had a strong affection for the homeland of the wolf pack that made him want to give back.

“It just felt right to do it here,” he said.

Johnson originally studied physics and after arithmetic switched to mathematics. “It’s hard to put your finger on it, it just fascinated me, the formulas and the logic and the beauty of it all. I never had any doubts about what I wanted to do. It was clear as a bell. I wanted to do my Abitur and become a professor of mathematics.”

Johnson’s passion for mathematics is evident in his teaching. Alumna Deanna Needell was named a senior scholar of the College of Arts and Sciences as an undergraduate in 2003 and chose Johnson to be her mentor.

“I don’t get emotional very often, but that was a big deal for me that she chose me,” Johnson said. Needell went to the University of California, Davis, and received his PhD in mathematics. She was a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford and then worked at Claremont McKenna College for several years. She was the 2014 College of Science Young Alumna of the Year.

“She came back to visit,” Johnson said, “and we had lunch together. She said to me: “I have news for you. I was offered a full professorship at UCLA.’ She is an endowed professor at UCLA and is now a data center director. I tell this story because I’m proud of Deanna, but also to remind students that students who come through our program can achieve great things.”

Johnson’s support of the math department and college of science speaks to his love of university and math.

“There are some really accomplished people in the math department at UNR who have done a really good job.”

Johnson remains involved at the university by meeting friends on the math department, attending events such as the Discover Science Lecture Series, and more recently being involved in the retired faculty association.

“Occasionally I go onto campus, walk up and down the hallways to say hello to my old friends,” Johnson said. “But the foundation is really all about the students. Help children who need help.”