Science Story October 2022
Paying it forward
According to Doug Johnson, he and his sister Carol Johnson, along with their late brother Dan, won the parent lottery. Their parents, Dorothy and Chris (John C. Johnson Jr.) not only were loving to their children but were nature lovers who believed in letting their children explore the great outdoors. Doug built dams in the water that trickled from the spring near their summer residence. He often went fishing with his dad, digging under cow pies for worms.
Carol lived a young girl’s dream, spending her summers riding her horse through the mountains and even helping the local cattlemen run their cattle into the high country, like a real cowgirl. Both Carol and Doug say it’s difficult to describe how idyllic their childhood was. The word magical keeps coming to mind.
A large part of that magical childhood has to do with where they spent their summers — in Gothic, where their grandfather, Dr. John C. Johnson, founded RMBL in 1928.
As if spending their summers in arguably one of the most beautiful spots on Earth wasn’t enough, the Johnsons basked in the tight-knit friendships they made with researchers and their families who summered at RMBL. “What was really special about it was the core community of scientists who cared deeply about their work and welcomed you into their presence,” says Carol. Their parents were right at the heart of Gothic’s social circle. Doug recalls, “Mom was very welcoming to everyone and just loved having people over to the cabin.” Highly invested in the larger RMBL community, Chris and Dorothy nurtured many of the scientists. Their impact on the culture of RMBL was significant.
The fingerprints of the Johnson family are still visible throughout RMBL. During the summer, they stayed in the Johnson Cabin. There’s a photo of the family on the porch of the Barclay Cabin, and Doug is being rocked as an infant. The same rocking chair, which was made by a miner and hauled to Gothic in the 1930s or 1940s, lives in the RMBL Visitor Center today. Doug recalls the time they built a fort in the aspens that grow on the way to Judd Falls; it still stands.
But life back then wasn’t all play and no work. Carol says that she and Doug worked at any task RMBL needed, including Doug spending many hours hand-digging holes for outhouses. RMBL had always been a family affair. Their mother Dorothy ran the dining hall unpaid. As a youth, their father Chris spent many hours of backbreaking labor to keep RMBL in working order. That hard-working youth grew up to become a professor of biology at Pittsburg State University, Kansas and served as RMBL’s director from 1968 – 1977, just as his father before him had served as director for 30 years.
Carol and Doug established the Johnson Family Memorial Fellowship Endowment to honor the memory of five Johnson family members — their grandfather Dr. John C. Johnson (1891–1973); his first wife, Vera Adams Johnson, and second wife, Mildred Fischer Johnson; his son, Dr. John Johnson Jr. (Chris); and his son’s wife, Dorothy G. Johnson.
The purpose of the Fellowship is to support scientists (including graduate students) who are working at RMBL and to support their research projects. Every year, Carol and Doug receive thank-you letters from fellows who express how much the fellowship meant to them. Because RMBL was so central to their lives and their family, Carol and Doug wanted to support the continuance of the science at RMBL, especially for scientists who want to do research in the company of their families.
RMBL’s founder was born in a sod hut in the eastern plains of Colorado, the sixth child and first son of Swedish immigrants. He grew up to establish, and personally finance, what is now an internationally renowned scientific research institution. For 31 years, he petitioned the County Commissioners to refrain from improving the road to Gothic in order to keep the land as close to an unspoiled wilderness as possible for the sake of scientists and students.
One of his grandchildren became a well-respected science teacher. Another grandchild married a scientist whom she met at RMBL and served on the RMBL Board of Trustees for a decade. Together, these siblings established a fellowship endowment to honor their parents and grandparents, the people who gave them all those summers of splendid isolation.
Their grandfather would be proud.
Carol grew up spending her summers in Gothic with her parents and brothers Doug and Dan. She kept horses, lodged at the corral and big barn near Copper Creek, and spent many happy days in the high country, herding cattle for the Cattlemen’s Association. In her teens and 20s, she worked on the RMBL work crew and was head cook in the RMBL dining hall. Carol became a lawyer specializing in investment management and worked 30 years for a major financial institution. She was the founding Executive Director of an art house cinema that shows hundreds of international and independent films every year, and she served in that capacity for 13 years, retiring in 2020. Carol met her husband Russell Miller, a PhD student studying columbine and their pollinators, at RMBL. They’ve been married since 1971 and have two daughters, Avery and Vera, who have vivid memories of their time at RMBL. Avery spent a summer working at RMBL, splitting her time between the work crew and assisting one of RMBL’s principal investigators. She is now a genetic counselor for a major hospital in New York City. Vera is an accountant for a firm in western Massachusetts. Carol served for 10 years on RMBL’s Board of Trustees. She and Doug both have second homes on the river in Gunnison, where they love to hike, sit by the river, and visit with friends. They remain avid RMBL supporters.
As child growing up at RMBL, Doug Johnson played in the streams, forests, and meadows of the East River Valley. In high school and college he worked on the work crew at RMBL. From 1976-2017, Doug taught biology and general science in public middle and high school. During the summers of 1984-91, he brought high school students from Columbus, Indiana, to RMBL for the Rocky Mountain Field Ecology Institute, where students worked alongside scientists studying the high-altitude environment. Now retired and living in Evansville, Indiana, with Kim, his wife of 31 years, he supervises student teachers for the University of Evansville. The couple recently spent a year in Tunisia working as directors of an international school. They have two married children and three grandchildren. Their daughter Katy, an elementary art teacher, and her husband Jake live in Evansville with their son Jett. The Johnsons’ son Jake, a website designer, lives in Aix-en-Provence, France with his wife Hannah, their son Laz, and daughter Salomé.