Bobby Johnson, Ph.D.
Written by Kate Gronewald
Photographed by Tom Barnard
Images flash through his head as he weighs cracked pieces of pottery in the palm of his hand. A Caddo Indian woman. A smooth earthen vessel. Designs carefully engraved across its curvature. Functional. Beautiful. For who? Her family. For storing. Cooking. What? Maize? Beans? Squash?
He fills in the blanks to solve the mysteries of those like us, from right here, but before us.
History is more than maps and dusty artifacts, Civil War reenactments or five-pound textbooks when the right person makes it come alive and make a difference. As an associate professor of history and political science, Dr. Bobby Johnson does just that as he actively uses the past to shape LETU students’ futures.
Johnson teaches a full load of history and political science courses but also promotes hands-on history through his relationship with the Gregg County Historical Museum. An active academic historian, researcher and writer, he began working with the Gregg County Historical Foundation in 2007 and now serves as chair of the museum’s Exhibits Committee.
Every week he donates time and expertise to bring the museum up-to-date with archives organized, digitized and stored correctly. But he’s not the only one preserving East Texas history, one faded photo or pottery shard at a time. Since the museum is entirely volunteer-based, Johnson quickly recognized a prime opportunity for a symbiotic relationship. Each semester, he facilitates student volunteering at the museum. Museum interns get a real taste of what goes on behind the scenes and earn course credit as they shadow the director, attend monthly board meetings, organize collections, raise funds, participate in exhibits and help out with annual events.
“We do everything we can to prepare students for whatever they want to do, whether it’s teaching history, attending grad school or law school, participating in public history or something else entirely,” Johnson said. “We pick up on and match students’ interests with projects of real substance and rigor that allow them to gain background and professional experience in that subject.” “I get to be part of what I view as a pivotal, transitional time in life, when students are coming alive intellectually,” Johnson said.
One of Johnson’s favorite spots is on the museum’s third floor, where surrounded by the extensive collection of Caddo Indian artifacts and antiques from East Texans past, he looks out from the corner window to a sweeping view of downtown Longview.
“I see museum work as my way of being part of LeTourneau’s ‘every workplace in every nation’ initiative,” Johnson said. “My version of travel is jumping in my car and driving down the roads of Texas.” Johnson reminds his students: You don’t have to go far to dig deep and excavate experience while you impact those around you.
Johnson and his students document and catalog LETU’s rich heritage by recording oral history interviews with current and former faculty, staff and Longview locals who have contributed to its growth and development.
“Both the Gregg County Historical Museum and LETU archives give students outstanding experiences. They get into the community to be a part of this place we’re living,” Johnson said.
With roots in Austin, Johnson has “wandered around Texas for 20 years.” Along the way, he earned a master’s degree in history from the University of Texas at San Antonio and a doctorate from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. After teaching at public secondary schools, colleges and universities throughout the state, he came to LeTourneau in 2001.
While 2010 marks the 100th anniversary of the Gregg County Historical Museum building, the potential of LETU’s partnership with the museum is only budding. After all, history has to start somewhere, and it often starts at home.