It was like so many other September afternoons on the Quad.
There was a happy dog, of course, relentlessly and joyfully chasing a wooden boomerang tossed by its owner at one end. Under the welcoming canopy of the historic elms sat a few students, all appropriately socially distanced, studying.
At the foot of the Morrill Hall balcony stood President Marc Johnson and his wife, Dr. Karen Penner-Johnson. Not far from them, all in facial coverings, were a small group of administrators, faculty and staff.
They were gathered for a special moment. At exactly 2 p.m., the chimes of Morrill Hall sounded. First the chimes played the Alma Mater of the University. Given the times we are living in, the Alma Mater sounded like a candle in a window – a reminder that the University is still open, is still accomplishing its goals and its mission, albeit heavily remotely. Then the chimes sounded again, in long, dramatic and bronze-sounding tolls that felt like they signified the entire 146-year dependability of the University.
And perhaps also the dependability and stability in leadership provided by Johnson, who ends his near-decade as the institution’s 16th president this weekend. Brian Sandoval, the former two-term Nevada governor, succeeds Johnson and takes office on Monday, Oct. 5.
Clearly moved by the opportunity to hear the chimes specially programmed for a special good-bye, Johnson thanked all those assembled for the “nine and half years” and “the twelve years” respectively that he had served as president, and before that, the time he arrived on campus in 2008 as provost and executive vice president.
Johnson said afterward that the daily operation of the University, where in a typical day he would move across campus several times for meetings with students or faculty or staff, often engaging in conversation with these same people and learning their stories, are parts of the job that he is already missing.
“I can’t thank everyone – and this includes everyone at our University – for building an amazingly cohesive campus where people really show amazing dedication to the mission,” Johnson said. “You’re talking about people who really do, on a daily basis, show off the campus in all of its welcoming glory.”
The gathering on Tuesday was a rarity for the University, in that few University leaders have ever been so honored. It was the work of Johnson’s chief of staff, Patricia Richard. Richard, calling upon her own experience and memory from two decades earlier when she was in University Events and asked the University’s longest-serving president, Joe Crowley, to walk down the stairs from his second-floor office in Clark Administration and step outside to hear the chimes, which were specially programmed then as well, for a final time. This time, Richard worked behind the scenes with the staff of Development and Alumni Relations, which calls Morrill home, to program the chimes for 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020.
For Johnson, whose tenure as president ran from 2011 (as interim president) to today, it was an opportunity to extend time, to visit afterward with students, faculty and staff yet again. Along with Karen Penner-Johnson, he handed out elbow bumps and smiles. As is his custom, there were points where Johnson crossed his hands behind him as he talked to a few students and patiently took in their stories.
It was like so many other September afternoons on the Quad. For one of the final times, though, during a week of final acts, the University’s 16th president heard the Alma Mater and marked time’s passage.
“We’ve been challenged from time to time, which is not unusual,” Johnson said. “But by and large, we’ve believed in one another. Most importantly we’ve all believed in our mission. It’s been a very collegial and respectful place for the last nine and a half years."