Johnson Legacy Gift Endows 8 Science and Math Chairs

Editors’ Note: This feature appears as it was published in the summer 2019 edition of UT Dallas Magazine. Titles or faculty members listed may have changed since that time.
Man with space instrumentDr. Frank Johnson with ionization gauge.


In 2010 Maurine Johnson, wife of the late Dr. Francis “Frank” Johnson, UT Dallas’ first acting president, became a member of the Legacy Society with a planned gift intended to create the Francis S. and Maurine G. Johnson Distinguished University Chair in the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. Upon her death in 2016 at the age of 97, Johnson’s gift of $5.5 million became the largest planned gift in UTD’s history.
“The incredible generosity of this gift will make a tremendous impact at the University,” said Dr. Richard C. Benson, president of UT Dallas. “In addition to establishing the original distinguished chair, the bequest is allowing us to create seven additional Francis S. and Maurine G. Johnson Chairs to support the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.”
As the original first lady of UT Dallas, Johnson occupied a unique position in the University’s history. While her husband and UT System leaders attempted to catalyze the development of the fledgling University and expand its breadth of expertise, she played a key role in helping to attract academic and industry leaders to campus and secure their commitments to join the University’s faculty.
She welcomed recruits and distinguished guests in the couple’s home, hosting delegates from NASA and other space science institutions. By creating a caring and collegial environment for potential recruits and industry partners, she helped encourage many of the University’s first faculty members to come aboard.
“Maurine was Frank’s right-hand person, and together they accomplished so much,” said Penny Lesan, Johnson’s niece and executor of her estate. “They made quite the team through 66 years of marriage.”
An expert in atmospheric physics, Frank Johnson served as manager of space physics for Lockheed Missiles and Space Co., and while working in the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., he designed instruments to study the atmosphere using German V2 rockets captured after World War II. One of his crowning achievements was the invention of a gauge that was used to detect atmospheric pressure on the moon, a device that flew on Apollo missions 12, 14 and 15.
His leadership at UT Dallas helped to deepen the University’s connections with exciting developments in the new field of space exploration and cemented the University’s reputation as an innovative leader operating at the crossroads of academia and industry.
“Endowed professorships are the lifeblood of every great university,” said Benson, who holds the Eugene McDermott Distinguished University Chair of Leadership. “These funds provide a perpetual source of support that allows for the recruitment and retention of outstanding individuals who will enhance students’ academic experiences and advance the reputation of their schools.”
Dr. Hobson Wildenthal, executive vice president at UT Dallas, said: “The legacy that Maurine and Frank Johnson leave through this remarkable bequest will impact the realization of UT Dallas’ mission to become a world-class institution of teaching and research far into the future.”