peter and rosalie johnson

Oregon State University is growing by leaps and bounds, and the College of Engineering is leading the way. The Oregon State community recently celebrated the construction launch of Johnson Hall, its latest expansion and new home to the School of Chemical, Biological, and Environmental Engineering. The facility adds to the generous and forward-thinking gifts of Peter (’55, Chemical Engineering) and Rosalie Johnson.

Peter’s life history reflects an American Dream come true. He was born in Roseburg, Oregon, in 1933. His father was a Swedish emigrant and his mother taught elementary school. When he was two years old, the family moved to the community of Greenleaf in Lane County, where they lived in a 12-foot by 24-foot shack with no electricity or indoor plumbing.

Rosalie and Peter Johnson

“My bedroom was divided from my parents’ by a hanging sheet,” said Johnson. “The walls and ceiling were covered by Sunday comics newspaper to cover the cracks and keep out the cold. It was a happy space.”

Peter learned to read by studying those comics, and he graduated from high school with 11 classmates. “After graduation, the boys usually worked in the woods or service stations and the girls got married,” he said, but that wasn’t what he envisioned for himself. “After milking cows for four years before and after school and spending the summer pitching dusty hay into the barn, I knew I didn’t want to be a farmer or work in the woods.”

His mother encouraged him to attend college, and he took her advice, earning a chemical engineering degree from Oregon State in 1955. After graduation, he worked in industry for many years before founding his own company, Tekmax, Inc., in 1980.

Tekmax became a world leader in battery plate enveloping and automated transfer equipment. Every battery manufacturer in the United States uses the method Johnson developed for making battery separator envelopes. During the time he owned Tekmax, it was ranked third among Oregon’s “Top 100 Places to Work” by Oregon Business magazine.

“My OSU education helped me have a successful career,” said Johnson.

Peter and Rosalie met on a blind date. Rosalie’s father had emigrated from France and eventually settled in Sonoma, California, where he owned a collection of summer resort cottages. Rosalie was raised as an only child with farm animals as her only playmates. She attended San Jose State University and taught business at the secondary level before she quit working to raise the two Johnson boys.

The Johnsons’ giving to Oregon State is visionary in its broadness and impact. They created the Pete and Rosalie Johnson Internship program for students, established the Linus Pauling Chair in Chemical Engineering to support faculty excellence, and now are lead donors for the Johnson Hall facility initiative.

foundation event participants

According to Scott Ashford, Kearney Professor of Engineering and dean of the College of Engineering, the design of Johnson Hall embodies collaboration and innovation. The 58,000-square-foot building will include open and collaborative laboratories for interdisciplinary research, multiple team rooms that will allow students to work on joint projects and faculty to collaborate on research, meeting space with the latest technology to facilitate communication across geographical distances, open areas conducive to informal interactions, a center with dedicated staff focused on improving recruitment and retention of engineering students, a lecture hall equipped with fume hoods to allow experimental demonstrations, and an experiential learning classroom space for senior capstone projects.

Brynn Livesay“It will be a place where faculty, students, and industry professionals can come together to teach, learn, and conduct leading-edge interdisciplinary research,” said Ashford. “Johnson Hall will house the latest and greatest technology that will attract national and international collaborators from academia, government, and industry.”

Lives are changing because of the Johnsons’ generosity. Brynn Livesay (’13 B.S. Chemical Engineering), a former Johnson Scholar who is pursuing a Ph.D. in bioengineering and biomedical engineering at the University of Washington, expressed deep gratitude to the Johnsons during the groundbreaking ceremony for Johnson Hall:
“I am now developing novel biomaterials for cancer immunotherapy, a treatment that is revolutionizing the way we combat deadly blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma,” said Livesay. “There is absolutely no way I would have been able to achieve the lofty goal I set as a high school student without the generosity of Pete and Rosalie Johnson. Pete and Rosalie, I know that many, many more students and alumni like me could have told you how grateful we are for your dedication to the engineers of the future. On behalf of all of us, please know that we will work diligently to make good on your investment.”

— Thuy T. Tran

Published Date: 
Tuesday, September 30, 2014