Interview with Wes Johnson, Part I: April 17, 2015

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Editors’ and author’s note: The Council of Past Presidents of the National Council on Public History (NCPH) began conducting oral histories with founders of NCPH in 2015. This blog post, the second of a two-part series, was inspired by interviews with Dr. G. Wesley Johnson, founder of NCPH’s journal The Public Historian (TPH). Dr. Johnson served as the first NCPH chair between 1980 and 1983 and received a 2015 NCPH Founders Award.

The interview was recorded on April 17, 2015, at NCPH’s annual conference in Nashville, Tennessee. The interview audio files are available online here. In the summer of 2019, edited versions of the two recording sessions with Johnson will be published in China’s first public history journal, Public History, A National Journal of Public History. Dr. Johnson passed away on November 16, 2018. You can read Rebecca Conard’s “In Memoriam” about Dr. Johnson here.

Nashville, Tennessee, was a fitting venue for interviewing the “music man” of public history. Several colleagues helped with preparations for the Johnson interviews: Rebecca Conard, John Dichtl, Theodore Karamanski, and Robert Weyeneth.[1]

Portrait of Dr. Wesley Johnson, Courtesy The Johnson Family

Portrait of Dr. Wesley Johnson: Photo credit: The Johnson Family

When Barb Howe and I interviewed Wes, he was 83, and a giant in the field: founding editor of The Public Historian; co-founder of the program at the University of California Santa Barbara; a participant in creating NCPH; and a secular apostle for public history preaching the “good word” about this emerging field nationally and internationally.[2]

Wesley Johnson was born, April 28, 1932, in Mesa, Arizona, which was then a small satellite of Phoenix. When Wes was 9, his family moved to Phoenix. Wes told us that he liked “to think in terms of turning points, and a turning point in his life was “leaving the . . . boondocks and going to Phoenix.”

At North Phoenix High School, Wes was a self-described leader and iconoclast. He was an associate editor and cartoonist for his high school newspaper and co-founder of an independent high school newspaperwhich the students believed would allow the freer exercise of their editorial voice. Wes’s classmates elected him president of his senior class.

Following high school, he attended Harvard where he was selected as an editor of the Harvard Lampoon, working with an interesting cohort, including John Updike. Wes missed his last semester at Harvard when he fulfilled his required LDS mission, at first protesting “’But Dad, it’s in my senior year. I’m going to miss all the parties.’”[3] By “luck of the draw,” he said, “they sent me to France. And, I’d been studying French history and French language, so it was perfect. So, I arrived in Paris and decided, ‘Thank God, here I am in Paris.’ And, I was there for the next two-and-a-half years.” That mission to France, he told us “proved to be a turning point because it really got me interested in the broader questions of history.” He met French professors “who were not just sitting in the ivory tower, [but] were out doing things,” scholars whom he described as role models. “I was terribly influenced,” he told us. “These French intellectuals had their journals . . . that was a formative influence for me,” he said, “which later contributed to The Public Historian.”

Wes returned from his mission in 1959, and following an unsatisfying year in law school, he entered the doctoral program in history at Columbia University. “I loved it,” he said, “I was delighted to be in New York, and within a month I started dating a girl named Marian [Ashby], who I married a year later.” At Columbia, he studied oral history at the flagship program founded by Allan Nevins (1890-1971) in 1948. Foreign policy analyst Zbigniew Brzezinski (1928-2017) was one of his professors. Wes remembered that “he had already established a track record of advising presidents and secretaries of state, and so forth. And I was spellbound in his classes. He was a historian and political scientist . . . So, there was one man who became kind of a role model for me.” Wes won a prestigious, three-year, dissertation grant from the Ford Foundation, allowing him to conduct archival research in Paris and oral history interviews in West Africa.

After earning his Ph.D., Wes held a faculty position at Stanford (1965-1971), where he played a major role in founding Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2015.

From Stanford, Wes moved to the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB). Shortly thereafter, he was informed by superiors that “we’re not going to keep funding you to go to Africa.” He took advantage of his knowledge of Phoenix and the fact that he knew the mayor to spend a year heading up a project that produced a history of Phoenix. He recalled: “I applied to NEH and got a nice big, fat grant to go to Phoenix and that was very fortuitous because that’s where my public history career started.”

Wes talked to us about the important role of his colleague, Robert Kelley, in creating the public history program at UCSB.

Shortly after Wes returned to UCSB from Phoenix, Kelley received a Fulbright to Moscow. Kelley told him, “‘Wes, you’re going to have to take over this little public history class I have.’” He began by running an MA program in public history, followed in a year by a Ph.D.  program, funded in its first three years by the Rockefeller Foundation. Johnson (and Kelley, upon his return from Moscow) sought out historians who were working in the public sector to talk to their students.  “Several of them said, you know, ‘Well, thank God, I’m finding my identity here. You people call it public history, that’s fine, whatever, I’m glad to accept it because I’ve been ostracized by the AHA and OAH—won’t speak to me because I don’t have a teaching job.’”

At UCSB, when Wes announced his intent to start a journal, his colleagues said, “‘Wes, you’re getting over your head. You don’t know what you’re doing.’ I said, ‘You’d be surprised. I know damn well what I’m doing, and I have a plan to do this, and it will be a success. You wait and see.’” He persuaded Lydia Bronte, a program officer at the Rockefeller Foundation, to provide start-up funds. The Public Historian published its first issue in the fall of 1978, with Wes as editor. Wes talked to us in some detail about the process of founding The Public Historian, emphasizing that in the journal’s early years “what saved me . . . was that the graduate students caught the vision.” He served as editor until 1987.

Wes shared with some delight how he persuaded the UCSB chancellor to provide base funding for The Public Historian. The chancellor, he remembered, called his dean into the meeting and said: “’This is Johnson. He needs money. He’s got a brilliant idea here for launching a journal. Our campus has very few journals. This has potential. Work with Johnson: get him space; get him money, get him graduate students, scholarships and so forth.’ The Public Historian was launched.”

We concluded session one with Barb Howe noting that the launching of The Public Historian seemed like a good place to stop. “Yes,” Wes responded, “That’s chapter one.”

~Philip Scarpino directs the IUPUI public history graduate program. He served as NCPH president from 1993 through 1994 and is currently active in the NCPH Council of Past Presidents, NCPH’s 40th Anniversary Ad Hoc Committee, the 2020 NCPH Annual Meeting Program Committee, and co-chairs the Joint Task Force on Public History Education and Employment (NCPH, OAH, AHA, AASLH).

[1] Rebecca Conard served as NCPH president from 2002 to 2003.  John Dichtl served as NCPH executive director from 2006 to 2015 and is currently president and CEO of the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH). Theodore Karamanski is professor of history and public history director at Loyola University Chicago and served as NCPH chair from 1989 to 1990. Robert Weyeneth served as NCPH president from 2012 to 2014 and is currently chair of The Public Historian editorial board and professor of history at the University of South Carolina.

[2] Barb Howe is retired from West Virginia University. She served as NCPH chair from 1988 to 1989 and currently serves on NCPH’s 40th Anniversary Ad Hoc Committee.

[3] LDS stands for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

1 comment
  1. Chip Hughes says:

    Wes was my MA committee chairman at Brigham Young University. After receiving my MA in American History,k I went to Arizona State University to work with Noel Stowe. I Currently own my own business writing business history, Voices and Images.

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