In Memoriam G. Wesley Johnson, Jr. April 28, 1932 – November 16, 2018

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Editors’ Note: This In Memoriam also appears in the current NCPH Newsletter and The Public Historian, Vol. 41, No. 1.

G. Wesley Johnson, Jr., founding editor of The Public Historian and a founding member of the National Council on Public History, died November 16, 2018. He is survived by his wife, Marian Ashby Johnson, four children—Cynthia, Karolyn, George III, and Benjamin—and their families.

G. Wesley and Marian Johnson outside the archives at IUPUI on May 22, 2012. They visited to conduct research about NCPH history.

G. Wesley and Marian Johnson on May 22, 2012, during a visit to the IUPUI campus and NCPH archives


Wes became a legendary figure among public historians although his career touched many bases. He grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, where his family served leadership roles in the political and cultural life of that fast-growing city. He studied history at Harvard, graduating in 1955. While at Harvard, he was an associate editor of the Harvard Lampoon, penning cartoons as well as articles alongside John Updike, who was then chief editor. After Harvard, he served a two-and-a-half-year mission for the Mormon Church. Based in Paris, he traveled to many countries and, by his own admission, developed a broad view of history. He also observed the role that journalism played in French intellectual life. After returning to the United States, he briefly studied law at Stanford University, then took up graduate work in history at Columbia University. With the aid of a three-year Ford Foundation grant, he undertook dissertation research on the emergence of modern African politics in Paris and Dakar, Senegal. He obtained his Ph.D. in 1967, and his dissertation was published as The Emergence of Black Politics in Senegal: The Struggle for Power in the Four Communes, 1900-1920 (Stanford University Press, 1971). He also edited, co-edited, or co-authored three more books as well as many essays on twentieth-century African political history.

Wes began his teaching career in 1965 as assistant professor of history at Stanford University. While at Stanford, he served as a research associate at the Hoover Institution and, with Eugene England, co-founded Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, the first independent journal in Mormon studies. In 1972, he joined the faculty at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he taught African history and began to develop a second field in what would become known as public history. Wes left UCSB in 1984 to become professor of history and political science at Brigham Young University, additionally serving as professor of business history in the Marriott School of Business. He also directed the Family and Community History Center at BYU and brought the Mormon Outmigration Leadership History Project (MOLHP) into the Marriott School. He retired from teaching in 1997, but, with his wife Marian, continued to administer the MOLHP until it was finished in 2007. He and Marian also teamed as consultants under the name Ashby and Johnson. In addition to undertaking several corporate history projects, they coauthored Centennial Utah: The Beehive State on the Eve of the Twenty-first Century (1995).

During the twelve years that Wes was at UCSB, he and Robert Kelley laid the groundwork for public history as an academic field. The process began shortly after he arrived. At the invitation of the mayor of Phoenix and with the aid of a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, he took a year’s leave from UCSB to organize the Phoenix History Project, a massive oral and community history project that would ultimately result in two published books. With this project, Wes was able to lean on his deep roots in the community to involve many people in documenting the city’s history. When he returned to UCSB, he and Kelley, who was experimenting with a class he called “public history,” which combined history and policy studies, collaborated to establish a graduate program in Public Historical Studies. With generous support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Rockefeller Foundation, they launched the program in Fall 1976. Their pedagogical model was built on the premise that public historians should be generalists capable of bringing historical methods and perspectives to bear on many issues of contemporary life. Toward that end, the curriculum they inaugurated included a broadly ranging seminar in American historiography, newly developed seminars crossing disciplinary boundaries, such as land-use history and policy, and quantitative methods, and a core team-research seminar in public history.

UCSB’s program did not emerge in a vacuum. Generations of historians had built productive history-based professional careers, and by the 1970s a scattering of history departments nationwide were training students for jobs other than teaching. Wes Johnson’s contribution to this activity, however, was singular: he gave it an identity and a structure. Drawing on his journalism background, he founded The Public Historian in 1978, announcing in the first issue that the journal heralded “the birth of a new field,” a pronouncement that seemed rash to many at the time. Initially financed with seed money from the Rockefeller Foundation, TPH joined the University of California Press’s stable of journals in 1980, with editorial offices at UCSB. Wes also arranged for the newly formed National Council on Public History to become the journal’s cosponsor. NCPH represented the other half of Wes’s strategy. In 1979, he organized a gathering of academics and history practitioners at Montecito, California. This successful brainstorming meeting led to a second gathering at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and the official founding of NCPH in 1980.

Wes served as editor of The Public Historian for ten years and chaired NCPH from 1980 to 1983. During the remainder of his time at UCSB, he also began cultivating an international presence for public history, organizing meetings in England, France, Holland, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Cameroon, Togo, Senegal, and elsewhere. This spadework produced a few articles published in TPH and a small cohort of international members in NCPH, but a true international presence would not emerge until much later. He also promoted the establishment of public history programs at other universities, most notably through a 1984 NEH summer institute in public history at Arizona State University, which he co-directed with Noel Stowe.

After Wes stepped down as TPH editor in 1987, he redirected his attention to business and Mormon social history, but he left a living legacy in the journal and in NCPH. Public history became a recognized academic field richer than he or Bob Kelley fathomed in the mid-1970s. In a 2015 interview, Wes summed up their collaboration this way: “Bob started classes and so forth at Santa Barbara. I’m the one who went out and spread it. . . . He didn’t have the stomach for the stuff I was doing . . . going to conferences and organizing things and so forth, trying to spread the public history gospel all over.” In addition to coining the term “public history”, Bob also “gave it some currency . . . and he was a great mentor for me, a great friend.” The same could be said of Wes Johnson, who was a mentor, friend, and inspiration to many of the public historians who followed in his wake. NCPH honored him in 2015 as the first recipient of the NCPH Founders Award.

~Rebecca Conard is professor of history emeritus, Middle Tennessee State University, and former director of the Middle Tennessee State University Public History Program. She is a past president of NCPH and currently serves on the NCPH Council of Past Presidents, Development Committee, and 40th Anniversary Ad Hoc Committee.

1 comment
  1. Jim Mathrusse says:

    Dr. Johnson was my teacher for West African History at UCSB in the late 1970’s. He was by far the best teacher I had the privilege of knowing throughout my undergraduate studies; it was this experience that kindled my serious interest in historiography and journalism. Dr. Johnson’s praise of my research projects and reports were inspiring and valuable, and he generously provided a letter of recommendation for me to use for my graduate school applications. I will always remember him with thanks.

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