Walter Hugh Johns was born at Exeter, Ontario on November 10, 1908 and received his undergraduate education at the University of Western Ontario. Following a teaching fellowship at Victoria College, Toronto, in 1930-31, he graduated from Cornell with a PhD in classics and taught for four years at Waterloo College, now the University of Waterloo.
In 1938 he was appointed lecturer in classics at the University of Alberta, where he was destined to spend the rest of his career.
The middle and late '30s were difficult years-he even had to rummage up his own office furniture — but he quickly adapted to the Prairies and plunged enthusiastically into teaching classics alongside William George Hardy, the new head of the department in succession to William Hardy Alexander.
But his soul was divided. An oldtime love of administration soon took him to the dean's office and the end of the Second World War found him already appointed as assistant to the dean of arts and science, where he was in place to help in coping with the flood of veterans returning to the University from active service. Many of these recall with affection the kindness and consideration they experienced at his hands during an uncomfortable period.
By the late '50s, Walter Johns had served as academic assistant to the president, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science, then for two years as vice-president under Andrew Stewart. He was finally appointed president in his own right at the beginning of 1959, just in time to preside over the explosive growth of the University during the '60s.
Under his guidance, enrolment tripled from 5,000 to 15,000 students, and many of the present buildings on the campus were constructed, notably the Henry Marshall Tory Building, the Biological Sciences Centre, the Clinical Sciences Building and the Students' Union Building. By the end of his second term, the University had become a different kind of institution-"overorganized" was his own word-and he felt it was time to step down.
After a year "sent out for a retread," as he liked to put it, he spent the remainder of his career teaching with distinction in the department of classics, his heart across campus in the University Archives, where he was gathering material for his history of the University. Among his many distinctions, which included five honorary degrees, he was named to the Order of Canada in 1978. But his enduring legacy will undoubtedly be A History of the University of Alberta, University of Alberta Press, 1981, in which with eloquence and insight he traces the fortunes of the University through six turbulent decades.
With the passing of Walter Johns on June 7, 1985, the University has lost a giant of its formative years. He will be remembered by all who knew him as, above all, a man of sterling personal qualities: generous, decent, humane, interested in everything-particularly other people.
Published Autumn 1985.