Remembering Dr. Carolyn E. Johnson, Faculty Emeritus and Friend


Carolyn “CJ” Johnson was born in Parkers Prairie, Minnesota on August 9, 1941 to Clarence and Edith Johnson. Carolyn’s brother, Curtis, was two years older. The Johnsons had a dairy farm, and Carolyn and Curtis were involved in 4H, church, family, and school activities. The family attended Esther Lutheran, a country church, and Carolyn and Curtis went to District 172 School and then Parkers Prairie High School, where Carolyn was active in drama and appeared in several theatrical productions. She was also a member of the GAA and played on the school’s volleyball and basketball teams.

Remembering Dr. Carolyn E. Johnson, Faculty Emeritus and Friend

Her mother wanted her to be a nurse, “but I always told her I liked school and wanted to teach.” Because two of her favorite English teachers – Mr. Hansen and Miss Olsen – had attended Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Carolyn did, too. She completed her student teaching at a suburban junior high school near Minneapolis, where she recalled that “the students were brats. I thought, ‘I can do better than this.’” She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English in 1963.

Realizing that a master’s degree would command a higher salary and nurturing a dream of one day teaching college students, Carolyn decided to attend American University in Washington, D.C. A friend recommended journalism as a major, and Carolyn immediately found the subject compelling.

While studying at American, she taught English and journalism at Wheaton High School in a D.C. suburb, where she also advised the student newspaper. One year she worked part-time at the Washington Evening Star writing feature and education stories. “I liked getting to attend events as a reporter but I was inspired to teach others,” she said.

During her last year teaching high school, she fortuitously attended a Journalism Educators Association conference in Chicago, where she met Dr. Jim Alexander. Dr. Alexander, one of the original faculty members in the Department of Communications at California State University, Fullerton, was attending the JEA conference to recruit new faculty members.

He and Carolyn met for breakfast. “He was smoking a cigar,” Carolyn recalled, though he later quit at the request of his two daughters. Their meeting was successful and then-Chair William Maxwell offered her a faculty position. She joined the CSUF faculty in 1972 and was one of the department’s first female professors.

She fondly remembered the warm family atmosphere of the department in its early years. “We all took care of each other,” she said. “We had a party nearly every weekend at someone’s home and I got the chance to meet all the wives. We all liked each other.” She taught Communications 101, the introductory writing course for all communications majors, as well as courses in feature writing, copy editing, and public relations.

Remembering Dr. Carolyn E. Johnson, Faculty Emeritus and Friend

After two years on the communications faculty, Dr. Maxwell stopped her on the way to class one day and informed her that if she wanted to keep her position she’d have to earn her doctorate degree. Upon some research, she discovered that the University of Tennessee was just starting a doctorate program in journalism. She was offered free tuition and a fellowship to pursue her Ph.D. During her two-year stay in Knoxville, she taught the college’s basic newswriting class. While back at CSUF, Dr. Alexander and then-department Chair Kenward Atkin persuaded administrators to hold her position open. She wrote her thesis on the best ways corporations could persuade employees to read internal magazines, and was awarded her Ph.D. in Communications in 1978.

Remembering Dr. Carolyn E. Johnson, Faculty Emeritus and Friend

As a tenured professor, Carolyn found that teaching at CSUF was an inspiration. “I enjoyed teaching college writers,” she said. “They had an authentic enthusiasm for a journalism career. They knew they wanted to write and they went after it.” She enjoyed following the careers of alumni who’d impressed her, including longtime Los Angeles Times reporter Sherry Angel, NHRA Vice President for Public Relations Geno Effler, freelance writer and editor Cathi Douglas, and Gary Sherwin, now CEO of Visit Newport Beach.  Any success stories about CSUF’s communications students made her proud.

Not only did she teach writing and reporting to young journalists, she practiced it herself. Carolyn was the longtime editor of ProComm, the department’s external magazine. In addition, she served for years as adviser to the student chapter of Women in Communications, and she served in different national WICI positions, including as national president. “They sent me to D.C. several times along with strong professional women like Helen Thomas to testify about the importance of women’s leadership. We were noisy and considered very pushy,” she said. “But we got the job done.” Her longtime membership in the American Association of University Women also led to national positions and international travel, including a trip to New Zealand as a delegate to the organization’s international convention.

In her personal life, Carolyn actively pursued a number of hobbies but never married and never regretted being single. “I had to make a choice,” she said. “I had a couple of offers of marriage, but I chose to move to Southern California instead and pursue my career.” As a result, she was able to freely take advantage of unusual opportunities that came her way, including international travel.

In 1995 at the invitation of a neighbor in her condominium complex, she joined the Fullerton Sunrise Rotary Club as one of its first female members. She remained a lifelong member. “Rotary members are friendly and the meetings are a happy way to start the day,” she said.

Thus, some of her recent journeys to far-off destinations were thanks to her long Rotary involvement. She visited Belize for one semester in 2007 as a winner of Rotary International’s grant for teachers, and went to Nigeria in 2008 as part of the Rotary’s local delegation that funded the drilling of a well to provide a small village with fresh water. During that trip she remembers being met by a swarm of curious youngsters who had never before seen a white woman.

Even after her retirement in 2010 from CSUF after 38 years of service, Carolyn didn’t rest. Instead she returned to the campus for several years to teach as a retired annuitant and continue as ProComm editor. During this time she also traveled to Europe and Australia, among other destinations.

Remembering Dr. Carolyn E. Johnson, Faculty Emeritus and Friend

But her international traveling days tragically ended in 2013. Carolyn was happy about reconnecting in the fall with two of her former college roommates, and they decided together to embark on a trip through the Blue Ridge Mountain Parkway in Virginia. While stopped at a scenic viewpoint on the second day, the three friends started exploring a wooded pathway. Along the way they hiked over a slippery boulder. Carolyn accidentally lost her footing and took a terrible fall. Fortunately a couple coming up behind immediately called for an ambulance. She had broken her back and neck and was paralyzed from the neck down. It was October 13, 2013.

Remembering Dr. Carolyn E. Johnson, Faculty Emeritus and Friend

Doctors operated on her neck right away and restored the ability to use her arms, but she remained paralyzed from the waist down. She stayed in University of Virginia Hospital for a week. Then she was moved to a Health South rehabilitation facility next door, where her physical therapist Anette helped her learn to walk with assistance. She returned to Southern California in December and spent three more months undergoing rehabilitation at St. Elizabeth’s Health Care and Rehabilitation Center in Fullerton. During one week, she entered St. Jude’s Hospital and participated in an intensive physical and occupational therapy program.

Just as she was successfully learning to function, Carolyn suffered a slight stroke in 2014 that forced her to start over again in developing her balance, coordination and strength. Even though partially paralyzed, she remained a happy, positive person. 

Her most recent home was Sunnycrest Senior Living in Fullerton where she enjoyed weekly bingo games, theater outings, and lectures.  At Sunnycrest, she made even more friends. She played bingo four times a week and rummy every day; friends pick her up every Thursday for Fullerton Sunrise Rotary meetings and someone from church brings her to Sunday services weekly.   She also attended numerous Cal State Fullerton events including the ribbon cutting of the Dr. Carolyn E. Johnson Internship Office, Communications Department 55th Anniversary Celebration, and Concert Under the Stars. Outside the walls of Sunnycrest, Carolyn enjoyed spending time with her cousin Angie Bohannon and Angie’s husband Ray, who live in Hacienda Heights. She also has a cousin John living in Riverside and a cousin Eleanore in Palm Desert.

During her recovery and in her life, Carolyn was thankful for the sound advice and support of Ray Kawase, one of her close Rotary friends. She was fortunate to have Ray to lean on, and is thankful to maintain many friendships from different parts of her life, including friends from Fullerton Sunrise Rotary, the university and her church, Fullerton First Lutheran.

Remembering Dr. Carolyn E. Johnson, Faculty Emeritus and Friend

Carolyn passed away on Tuesday, November 7. She was 76.

Last year, the College of Communications honored her nearly $48,000 in gifts to the University with the June unveiling of the Dr. Carolyn E. Johnson Internship Office. Her gift of $25,000 started the University’s Journalism Endowment Fund, which supports the purchase of travel, materials and equipment for the Communications Department, including backpack kits of photography and video equipment to assist students in journalism classes.

To honor Johnson with a donation to the Department of Communications, please contact Katie McGill, director of development for the College of Communications, at 657-278-8231.

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Last Published 4/7/22

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