A giant of the law entered the Father’s house Thursday night. The former dean at both Emory and Georgia State law schools, who laid the foundations for greatness at both institutions, Ben Johnson, Jr. was 91.
Dean Johnson was born and raised in Atlanta where he graduated from Atlanta’s Boys High School in 1932. He earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Georgia in 1937 after working his way through Emory University and what is now Georgia State University. After graduating first in his class from the Emory University Law School in 1939, he began his law career at the Atlanta law firm of Sutherland, Tuttle and Brennan; served as a naval intelligence officer during World War II; and went on to earn a Master of Law degree from Duke University.
In 1949, he began his tenure of over thirty years as law professor and dean at Emory University. While teaching at Emory between 1955-1961, he served as Deputy Attorney General for the State of Georgia specializing in state tax litigation. In 1962, he was elected to the Georgia State Senate and served until 1969. His most significant achievement in the senate was as the principal author of legislation that resulted in the creation of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA).
From 1961 to 1973 he served as the fourth Dean of Emory Law School. Under his leadership, enrollment grew from 101 to 561, the faculty grew from 8 to 21, the library grew from 44,000 to 80,000 volumes, and the law school moved from its original building on the quad (now part of the Carlos Museum) to Gambrell Hall at the intersection of North Decatur and North Clifton. He personally briefed and argued the landmark case that integrated Georgia’s private universities, in an era when desegregation was viewed by most of his generation as anathema, then led the law school through desegregation. The minority lawyers he cultivated in their youth became the first generation of minority lawyers and judges in Atlanta.
Dean Johnson introduced new programs focusing on engaging students in the ethical responsibilities of their profession, such as protecting the environment and promoting child welfare. Under his leadership the Emory Community Legal Service Center opened in 1967 as a federally-funded demonstration project which laid the foundations for the Atlanta Legal Aid Society.
In 1981, he became the founding dean of the Georgia State University College of Law. His leadership gave the infant law school instant credibility in the legal community. He led the Georgia State law school from its inception to its first graduating class and provisional accreditation from the American Bar Association in 1985.
When I entered Emory Law School in 1974 as a callow youth of 23 who looked about 16, Dean Johnson had just recently laid aside the duties of Dean. To his face we called him "Dean," but behind his back we affectionately called him "Gentle Ben" because, defying the popular stereotype of the intimidating law professor, he taught with kindness and patience. He valiantly attempted to teach me Trusts and Estates. Leading the class through the fine points of the Rule Against Perpetuities and the Rule in Shelly’s Case, he told us every day, "inch by inch it’s a cinch, yard by yard it’s hard." Not practicing in that field, I don’t recall a lot of details of trust and estate law, but that daily admonition to persevere has stuck with me through the years.
Dean Johnson’s son, Ben III, is managing partner of Alston & Bird and chairman of the Board of Trustees at Emory, carrying on his father’s commitment to the law and to Emory.
Goodnight and farewell, Gentle Ben. As folks used to say about my grandma down in the mill village, you’ve earned "stars in your crown."