Renaissance man

Professor Tom Johnson’s diverse and multiple interests aren’t confined by time or convention.




When Tom Johnson’s father toured with Elvis Presley in 1971, the fifth grader would put the tour stickers on his trumpet case. Of course, his classmates didn’t believe him, but that didn’t stop his love of music.

“I remember in probably junior high, I had gone on a church trip and I had played my trumpet at church camp. I remember walking, a week after that down the hall at church and there was a group — mostly of girls,” Johnson said. “One of them said something like, ‘You’re a really good trumpet player.’

“And at the time I thought, ‘Ugh, they’re just making fun of me.’ And then walked on past and didn’t say anything, and one of them said, ‘Boy, is he rude!’ and then I realized, ‘Oh, she meant it.’”

tom-johnsonJohnson, a professor of psychology at Indiana State University, said that early memory stuck with him and may have sent him down his career path.

“You don’t always know what other people’s intentions are. Who knows, maybe that experience helped me become a cognitive therapist,” Johnson said.

While Johnson’s father taught him about music, Johnson would talk to his mother about life and have many conversations that kids didn’t get to have with their parents. Johnson says his mother is a “very tolerant, very caring person” and answered a variety of tough questions about the world.

“It was kind of cool to have somebody who I could use as a soundboard for asking questions about life, the universe and everything,” Johnson said. “Her tolerance of differences among people — goodness knows we have trouble with it now, but particularly in the ’60s and ’70s, there was a lot going on. She was just so open and caring about people in those issues.”

For a long time, like many of his students nowadays, Johnson struggled with deciding what he wanted to do with his life. He had an interest in music — although his father discouraged the life of a starving performer — dabbled with writing and even participated in a medieval reenactment club.

A play he wrote as a teenager “was about a guy who is going into his attic and he encounters his memories, and the plot was that he had just finished college and he’s still not sure what to do with his life,” Johnson said. “And I’m thinking ‘Wow, that’s kind of prescient that I wrote that in high school.’”

Johnson realized most of his interests boiled down to attempting to “unpack the human condition,” mostly through creative means, which Johnson says is a large part of the social sciences.

tom-johnson_trumpetJohnson went on to earn his degree in clinical psychology from the University of Missouri, and joined Indiana State as a professor in August 1993.

State has provided more than research opportunities for Johnson. He met his wife here on a blind date. They had been set up by a colleague — Kevin Snider, former vice president for institutional research — and the pair ended up talking for more than four hours at what was then known as Sushi Umi.

“She made a comment at one point in the evening — she’s Chinese — ‘Well in China, we don’t really date people unless we’re thinking about marriage.’

“WHAT?,” thought Johnson. “And I told her later, ‘You’re lucky you got a second date after that.’ It’s not one of those things that’s in a script for first dates in this country.”

When he retires, Johnson says he would like to go back to school and get a music degree.

“But I don’t know if that’s what I’ll do or not,” he said. “Part of the problem of having a lot of interests is there are only so many hours in the day.”

Johnson was one of 10 finalists in the 2014 University of Wisconsin River Falls Composition Workshop and Competition for his composition, “Four Cartoons for Woodwind Quintet.” The piece was performed by the Prevailing Winds Woodwind Quintet on Oct. 26, 2014 and by the ISU Faculty Wind Quintet in April 2015.

“(Playing an instrument and composing is) something I always wanted to do. I started doing both about the same time,” Johnson said. “There’s a bit of a learning curve. The stuff I wrote when I was in junior high sounds like it was written by a junior high student.”

Tom Johnson looks over archival documents at St. Meinrad Archabbey with his daughter, Melanie.

Tom Johnson looks over archival documents at St. Meinrad Archabbey with his daughter, Melanie.

After studying trumpet with Bill Adam and jazz arranging and composition with Dominic Spera while at Indiana University, later learning composition under Joel Naumann at the University of Wisconsin and continuing to sharpen his skills with Daniel Powers, composer in residence at Indiana State’s School of Music, Johnson has flattened that learning curve.

Johnson has published more than 30 articles and book chapters and received the Theodore Dreiser Distinguished Research and Creativity Award from Indiana State in 2005. He teaches courses including the “Psychology of Music” and “Music and Drug Subcultures in the U.S. and the U.K.” Johnson has written the book, music and lyrics for two full-length musicals — “Young Man in a Hurry” and “The Ballad of Robin Hood.”

Although Johnson earned his degrees in psychology, his scholarship is far from done.

“The first day of class, I walk in the room and there’s Tom,” said Steven Stofferahn, associate professor of history. “We looked at each other for a few seconds and we were like ‘Okay…’.”

Stofferahn said Johnson found a way to be both a mentor and a student in his early medieval Europe seminar without making it “weird.”

Johnson said one reason he took Stofferahn’s class was to have the opportunity to share a classroom experience with one of his children. His daughter, Melanie, was also on the roster.

“I think taking classes here makes me a better professor. It’s a privilege to see how other professors teach. I’ve completely revamped my history of psychology class after taking Dr. Stofferahn’s class.”

A couple years ago, Stofferahn found a ninth or 10th century manuscript inside the binding of a Calapino dictionary when he visited the rare books section of the library with a class of undergraduates. He’d been planning to write a paper about it.

“Here’s a really smart colleague who is interested in music and driven,” Stofferahn said of Johnson. “I suggested to Tom, ‘Why don’t we coauthor this article? You always wanted to be a medieval historian — let’s be medieval historians together.’”

Not only did they decipher chants, but they also had the opportunity to perform chants together for the class. The medieval history class took a trip to the St. Meinrad Archabbey for a sunrise performance at the Our Lady of Monte Cassino Shrine.

Johnson used the pitch pipe app on his phone to find the right note.

“We had a lot of fun, he’s got a much better voice than I do,” Johnson said. “Melanie knew this was going to happen, so she wasn’t really embarrassed. Most of the students we talked to thought it was cool.”

Johnson’s scholarship may have encouraged Stofferahn to attend a course in psychology. “But I won’t tell him beforehand. I’ll just show up,” Stofferahn said with a laugh.

Johnson’s philosophy in life could be a quote on a refrigerator magnet: Have fun, be nice and keep learning.

“A lot of life is attitude, and speaking as a psychologist, but also from my own personal life — and my wife is very good at noticing when my attitude sucks,” Johnson said. “And so getting my attitude right is not a miracle cure, but outlook is huge. Recognizing the blessings you do have, the advantages you do have, even in tough situations, is good.”

Although Johnson enjoys learning, he was “kicked out of kindergarten” at one point because his teacher thought he was developmentally delayed. Johnson checked out OK, and his parents and teacher were told he was just a “high-IQ child” who was bored with school.

“So I have sympathy with people who march to the beat of a different drummer and have trouble fitting in with sort of the standard rules of society,” Johnson said. “But even somebody who’s been kicked out of kindergarten can succeed in academic life.”



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