After notable careers in agriculture and higher education, Jim and Janet Johnson of Roanoke, Va., could have slipped quietly into a well-deserved retirement and simply filled their days with nothing more than long walks and sunsets.

Instead they took the opportunity to become full-time, award-winning philanthropists.

The husband and wife team were awarded the Ruby C. McSwain Outstanding Philanthropist Award by the National Agricultural Alumni and Development Association at its annual conference on June 18, in Alexandria, Va.

The award honors individuals who have demonstrated sustained giving to agricultural initiatives including agriculture in higher education, extension, or land-grant universities. The award also recognizes advocacy for agriculture and natural resource management in the form of philanthropic commitments.

The Johnson’s commitment to their community through giving and volunteer service has meant that retirement has been anything but quiet.

“Everybody flunks retirement occasionally,” joked Jim Johnson of his and his wife’s fruitful post-career associations with numerous philanthropic endeavors at Virginia Tech and the surrounding communities in the New River Valley.

“I grew up a very involved farm boy and I guess it stayed with me. It never rubbed off. I was lucky enough to marry a spouse who had the same passion,” said Jim Johnson.

He received degrees from Virginia Tech and North Carolina State University, and spent his professional career as a Virginia Cooperative Extension agent at Virginia Tech, ultimately retiring as Extension director and associate professor emeritus of Extension.

“For as long as I have known the Johnsons they have given their time, talent, and treasure to Virginia Tech and the community. Throughout their distinguished careers and retirement they have been tireless advocates of agriculture in the state of Virginia," said Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger. “They are most deserving of this national recognition.”

Janet Johnson’s career was also spent at Virginia Tech after obtaining degrees at Purdue University and Cornell University. She is dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and retired as dean of what was the College of Human Resources and Education, where the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise had previously been housed, ultimately becoming part of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

Though she had already retired, Janet Johnson's significant leadership role in maintaining the connection between the newly relocated department kept the school’s alumni feeling welcome and involved when the department transferred over to its new home. In 2011 she served on the committee to plan the celebration of the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise’s 50th anniversary, a milestone for the department and the college.

“What I admire most about the Johnsons is their embodiment of the Virginia Tech motto, Ut Prosim, That I May Serve,” said Alan Grant, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “If you ask anyone about either Jim or Janet, you will surely hear high praise for their professional accomplishments.”

Indeed, Jim and Janet Johnson have served the Virginia Tech community by establishing numerous endowments and scholarships for students and faculty.

The benefit of giving for Janet Johnson is “always seeing the difference our philanthropy makes for many students who receive scholarships who say ‘I wouldn’t have been able to do this without the scholarship funds.’”

But for the Johnsons, philanthropy is more than just the act of giving financially. Jim and Janet Johnson have also spent numerous hours as volunteers or serving on boards within their community. Both of their children were active in the Blacksburg High School band and they are members of the Blacksburg High School Band Boosters, as well as support the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra in the New River Valley and Roanoke. 

Janet Johnson recently completed a term as Rotary International’s District 7570 Governor, a swatch of territory that includes the entire western side of the state.

Janet Johnson’s commitment to volunteerism can be seen around Blacksburg in the artfully painted Hokie Birds that are placed strategically throughout the town. As chair of the Gobble D’art Program, she facilitated the creation of the metal avian structures that have become signature landmarks in the town of Blacksburg.

She was also instrumental in the initial curating of the Peacock-Harper Culinary Collection, a collection of cookbooks that is noted for its international scope and 500-year breadth. The collection currently includes more than 160 pre-1900 imprints, another 153 works published before 1923, and an additional 330 pre-1950 imprints.

For all of the ways they have impacted Virginia Tech, the Johnson’s remain humble about their giving, and insist it is they who are the recipients of a great gift.  

“The Virginia Tech community is a very special place that touched us as a whole, and continues to do so,” said Janet Johnson.



Written by Amy Loeffler.
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