In Memoriam: Peter Johnson

Black and white portrait of Peter E. Johnson

It would be a challenge to name anyone who embodied the spirit of the Oregon State Engineer more than Peter E. Johnson, who died in June at age 86.

From his modest beginnings as an Oregon farm boy, the 1955 chemical engineering graduate would go on to achieve success as an inventor and businessman. Yet, he never forgot the soil from which he sprang. Along with his wife, Rosalie, he generously supported the school that enabled him to become an engineer, with philanthropic gifts that continue to have a lasting impact.

“Oregon State set me on the right path,” Johnson said in 2013. “Rosalie and I believe that with hard work, persistence, and education, anything is possible.”

The son of a Swedish immigrant farmer and a teacher, Johnson was born in Roseburg, Oregon, in 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression. (Family legend holds that his father paid the bill for his son’s delivery with deliveries of split wood to the hospital and doctor.) The following year, the family moved to Greenleaf, Oregon, an unincorporated community on the Siuslaw River in Oregon’s Coast Range.

It was there that Johnson grew up, in a house his father built on the family’s small dairy farm. For his first years of school, Johnson was part of a class of six, taught by his mother in a one-room schoolhouse. He graduated from high school in 1950, in a class of 12, and made his way to Oregon State University.

Johnson’s first job out of college was at the Shell Chemical refinery in Martinez, California. He met Rosalie Rocca, a senior at San Jose State College, on a blind date in 1956. They were married in 1958 and had two sons, Michael and David. The family moved to Corvallis in 1971, where Peter worked for Evans Products.

As a moonlight inventor working in his garage, Johnson devised a machine and a process for manufacturing longer-lasting lead-acid car batteries in 1980. He went on to found Tekmax Inc. in 1981 as the sole provider of this technology to manufacturers worldwide. Under Johnson’s leadership, the company was awarded nine patents. Johnson served as its president for two decades, passing the torch to his son David upon his retirement. In 2002, the company was ranked No. 3 on a list of the “100 Best Companies to Work For” by Oregon Business magazine.

Johnson had a passion for helping Oregon State transform students into well-prepared, problem-solving engineers. He served on College of Engineering advisory boards for nearly 20 years and was an OSU Foundation trustee. But above all, he sought to provide opportunities for future Oregon State Engineers.

“Pete Johnson was not only one of our school’s most successful graduates, but he and Rosalie have also done more to give back to the school than any other alumnus in our history,” said Greg Herman, head of the School of Chemical, Biological, and Environmental Engineering. “Beyond their financial generosity, the Johnsons have shown a genuine, personal interest in our students and their success.”

In 1997, the Johnsons established the Linus Pauling Chair in Chemical Engineering to honor Oregon State’s most famous chemical engineering graduate. The endowment supports a faculty member with industry experience who mentors students and helps them develop communication, project management, and leadership skills.

The family also funded the Johnson Internship program, which provides paid summer internships to students after their first year of college. Since its creation in 1998, more than 400 students have benefited. Skip Rochefort, associate professor of chemical engineering, recalls that, in early conversations about the program, Johnson made clear that he didn’t want to help only the top students, who may already have had some advantages.

“He told me, ‘I want you to look for folks that have worked throughout high school. Kids that mowed lawns or had a paper route,’” Rochefort said.

The family’s $7 million gift to the OSU Foundation leveraged additional support for the construction of Johnson Hall, which opened in 2016 as the home for the School of Chemical, Biological, and Environmental Engineering, as well as collegewide student programs in the College of Engineering. In appreciation of their gifts for the CH2M HILL Alumni Center, the Johnson Lounge and Library are named for the couple as well.

Among other honors, Johnson received the Dan Poling Service Award from the OSU Alumni Association (2008), was named to the Oregon Stater Engineering Hall of Fame (2005), and was selected as an OSU Alumni Fellow (2001).

“Pete was always so pleased to enable CBEE students to achieve future success with scholarships, and especially internships, to get hands-on experience,” Rosalie Johnson said. “It was totally inspiring to attend the outstanding presentations and observe how confident and professional each student was in presenting their research projects.”

Sept. 25, 2020