Mechanical Engineering Alum, Retired Department Chair Maintain Contact Over Years

August 2011 By

Though almost 40 years have passed since Robert Johnson graduated from the University of Mississippi School of Engineering, the retired mechanical engineer says he will never forget his mentor and the life-changing experiences he had as a undergraduate student.

"My life as I now know it started there with Dr. F. Douglas Shields, an Ole Miss physics professor who cared enough about me, as a person, to not only share the gospel of Jesus with me, but studied the Bible with me and later baptized me," said Johnson, who lives in Cambodia with his wife, Jeanie. "I began practicing the biblical concepts of integrity, honor, sacrifice, your neighbor more important than yourself there in my everyday life, and now in my service in Cambodia."

The Johnsons came to Cambodia in October 2008 to work as volunteers on a medical ship that offers free medical, pharmacy and dental services to residents living along the banks of the Mekong River. His job as the ship's engineer was to oversee the normal operation of the ship and to take the vessel into dry dock. While in dry dock, he would manage the contractors for the repairs, upgrades and modifications to the entire vessel, getting it back up to safe operating condition.

Through a series of events, the couple found themselves leasing a house and inviting foreigners and tourists passing through to stay with them. They began a home church and started getting involved in the community, teaching English in a public school as the volunteer "native speaker," helping with a sub-culture in the salt fields where sea salt is reclaimed from the Gulf of Thailand, and being good neighbors and friends to those with whom they come in contact.

John Fox, chair emeritus and professor emeritus of mechanical engineering, fondly recalled his student and a few of the events they shared during his tenure.

"Robert always was a very interesting guy," Fox said. "He worked hard on everything he did as a student. And whatever he did, he did thoroughly."

Johnson, who was a research engineering technician with BF Goodrich Aerospace, said he came to the Ole Miss engineering school with a desire, determination and a quest for the technical skills necessary to become successful as a person and as an engineer.

"My learned professors were not only my teachers, but valuable resources for the challenges that lay before me, and I knew that," he said. "My approach to problem-solving became analytical rather than emotional, which was just the beginning of changes in my professional as well as my personal life. I became the engineer Dean (Karl) Brenkert envisioned in body, mind and spirit."

Since graduation, Johnson sat on the board of directors for the University Christian Student Center (which Shields started) for nearly 20 years. During those returns for board meetings, and later the graduation of both his daughters from UM, he always made it a point to renew acquaintances with engineering faculty and friends.

"I was always warmly received, and since Dr. Fox was chairman of my engineering discipline and my wife's boss (she was his secretary), there was more time spent with him," Johnson added.

As a Vietnam War veteran on the G.I. Bill and assigned to a "work study program" directed by Fox, Johnson co-taught two engineering labs and helped complete both a sub-sonic and supersonic wind tunnel for Fox. "These items were my work study assignments. I just had fun while pursuing my heart's desire to become an Ole Miss engineer," he said.

"It was a very interesting time," said Fox, who designed nine such tunnels in various locations over the course of his 48-year teaching career. "Robert got into small computers early on. He would buy the pieces and actually build them from scratch."

Johnson recently handled the logistical and planning preparations for a medical team from Mercer University in Macon, Ga., to come to Kampot Province for three weeks and hold clinics in remote villages and communes. The team arrived in late May with lodging, food and an agenda in place for a busy time of free medical clinics.

"The time was well spent," Johnson said. "Over 1,200 patients were seen and I'm doing a follow-up with patients that still need medical attention and assistance. Things went so well that Mercer Medical School is considering making this an annual event for interested fourth-year medical students, as well as pharmacy and nursing students and faculty."

Johnson said he praises God for the great good that is still at the forefront of Ole Miss engineering.

"The slogan 'I see the engineer in you' is very appropriate to the school's apparent goals of creating graduates with the traits that make a good engineer and a person capable of making our world a better place to live life," he said.

"You become an engineer through life's experiences and exposures and certainly challenges. Having the engineering tools taught at UM by a great administration, I have learned the value of objective thought and critical analytical objective thinking."

Fox concurred with Johnson's assessment.

"Teaching has been very rewarding for me, especially considering it was something I never aspired to do," he said. "The field has allowed me to further my own education and meet a lot of interesting people, such as Robert Johnson."