Before his nomination to the Nebraska Hall of Fame Alvin Johnson probably wouldn't even appear as the most famous person to come from Homer, Nebraska. But Johnson, who attended the University of Nebraska, became a founding editor of the “New Republic,” wrote fiction and nonfiction books and established a highly respected university, is most certainly a name to be reckoned with and now should be on everyone’s list.
Jen Jensen Deyrup immigrated from Denmark to Wayne County, Nebraska, and with the manipulation of an immigration officer, became John Johnson. John married a neighboring Danish immigrant and built a log house near the village of Homer, named for the Greek scholar and poet. With a nod to Nebraska territorial governor Alvin Saunders, the Johnson’s son, born Dec. 18, 1874, was named Alvin Saunders Johnson. When Johnson was 3, his mother began to teach him to read, which gave him a self-confessed zeal for knowledge. This, coupled with his gangly legs, earned him the sobriquet of Professor Frog. Perhaps as an effort to pass the farm on, when Alvin was 13, his father drew up a sort of contract that would give him two-thirds of the profits from the land. Alvin Johnson however was not slated to remain on the farm.
In 1892, Johnson arrived in Lincoln to enroll at the University of Nebraska and presented himself to Registrar Ellen Smith. Unfortunately it was November, because he had been working on the farm, making him two months late. Smith told him to return the following September. Unflustered, Johnson simply approached Chancellor Canfield who, after a brief interview, overrode Miss Smith. Piqued at the decision, Smith did her best to give Johnson the most difficult instructors, including Lt. Pershing who taught math as well as military science while himself attending law school.
Although he entered school in premed, he chose not to complete that course, graduated with a B.A. in 1897 and a year later earned his master’s degree in classics. It was an interesting time to be at the university, as his classmates included Dorothy Canfield, the chancellor’s daughter and who later became a famous author as Dorothy Canfield Fisher; Willa Cather; and Louise Pound, whom he later confessed he thought even more intelligent than her brother Roscoe.
Although a pacifist, Johnson patriotically enlisted for the Spanish-American War in 1898 but never got farther than his Georgia basic training camp.
In 1902, Johnson finished his Ph.D. in economics and was hired as assistant editor of the Political Science Quarterly, becoming its editor in 1907. During the same period he returned to teach at the University of Nebraska in 1906, finding it then “restrained by puritanical rules” and becoming conservative. Staying only two years, he began teaching at the University of Texas in 1908, but did not stay long there, either. After teaching at Columbia for a time he joined the liberal “New Republic” magazine at its birth, as economics editor. At the same time, Columbia had imposed a “loyalty oath” on all faculty and students, resulting in many faculty members being fired.
Beginning in 1918, discussions led to his joining Thorstein Veblen, John Dewey, Erich Fromm and others in establishing the New School University in 1919. Their intent was to establish an alternative university to educate “adults entrusted with socio-political tasks,” which would quickly become famous for its “respectable radicalism.” This was obviously where Johnson dreamed of being and so bought a home at Nyack, New York. At first, the school seemed solid but financial problems arose, and in 1923, he took over as the school’s director. Within a year the school’s board included Willa Cather and Roscoe Pound.
In 1933, it was becoming readily apparent that scholars, particularly Jewish scholars, were fleeing Europe as their jobs were threatened and increasingly terminated. Johnson established the University in Exile within the New School as a means of aiding scholars fleeing Italian Fascists and Nazi Germany while enlisting the Rockefeller Foundation’s financial support. Economist Emil Lederer was the first of a group that would ultimately number 184. This group has sometimes been referred to as Johnson’s “Schindler” list, several members of which, in 1935, became the New School’s graduate school faculty and included Claude Levi-Strauss and Max Wertheimer.
The New School flourished, was led from 2000 to 2011 by Nebraskan Bob Kerrey, now has an enrollment of about 10,000, is considered one of the top nontraditional colleges, is in the top tier of national universities and is ranked number one in terms of small class sizes.
In 1944, Johnson drafted the Ives-Quinn Bill for the State of New York, which criminalized the discrimination of African-Americans and Jews and became the basis for similar anti-discrimination legislation in the United States.
Johnson officially retired in 1945, but he continued to write and give speeches until his death June 7, 1971 at Upper Nyack. In the end, he had taught at Bryn Mawr, University of Nebraska, Columbia, University of Texas, University of Chicago, Stanford and Cornell, while he wrote nearly 1,000 articles and books, including much of the eight-volume 1927 Encyclopedia of Social Sciences. Honorary degrees were given by Brandeis, University of Nebraska, Hebrew Union, Yeshiva University and universities in Brussels, Algiers and Heidelberg. It was said that the New School “accommodated more economic émigrés than any other institution in the United States,” and that Alvin Saunders Johnson was “the last man who knew everything there was to know.” Johnson was formally inducted into the Nebraska Hall of Fame on May 30, 2014.