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Richard St John (Dick) Johnson (1929–2019)

by Beryl Rawson, Graeme Clarke and Elizabeth Minchin

Dick Johnson, by Peter Stewart, 2010

Dick Johnson, by Peter Stewart, 2010

ANU Archives, 1885/12918

Richard St Clair Johnson lived and worked in Canberra from 1962, but had wide experience of other cities and institutions before that. He had a long association with the ANU, in Classics, administration and studies in education. His lifelong interest in education was scholarly, vocational and administrative.

His secondary education was at St Ignatius College (Riverview) in Sydney, after which he took the BA (Hons) degree at the University of Sydney and, later, a DipEd and MA (Hons).

His first appointment after graduation from the University of Sydney was in New Zealand, at the then Auckland University College. Appointments in Classics at the universities of Western Australia and then Melbourne followed, before he became the foundation Professor of Classics at the ANU in 1962, a chair he held until 1984.

During these years, he held many administrative responsibilities: Dean of the Faculty of Arts (twice), Dean of Students, Chairman of the Board of The Faculties, and Acting Deputy Vice-Chancellor. Beyond the ANU, he was active in bodies promoting secondary and higher education, both at ACT level and nationally. In 1967 he became a Fellow of the Australian College of Education and then the college’s president from 1975 to 1977. He was a founding member of the Australian and New Zealand History of Education Society and of the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia. At the ANU he contributed to the establishment of the Centre for Educational Development and Academic Methods (CEDAM).

As a teacher and a skilled supervisor of research theses, Dick earned the warm respect and affection of his students. In undergraduate teaching, he developed a new course, ‘The Classical Tradition’, to which he contributed a section on the role of Greek and Roman educational theory and practice in European culture and pedagogy up to the present day. This course was the third part of a major sequence, based on courses in Greek civilisation and Roman civilisation, which he encouraged colleagues to develop from the early 1960s. Such courses-in-translation were still rare in Australian universities and were looked on with some academic suspicion, but he insisted that they be intellectually rigorous, drawing on and stimulating new approaches and content. And indeed generations of students, perhaps thousands, appreciated the richness of that sequence of courses.

Dick’s research fed directly into his teaching. In the two-volume publication Martianus Capella and the Seven Liberal Arts (New York, 1971–77), co‑authored with William Stahl and with contributions by Evan Burge, Dick translated and discussed a late 4th-century work of great pedagogical and philosophical influence through the Middle Ages.

Dick always argued that Classics was not now, nor had it ever been, some esoteric subject divorced from ‘real life’. It has always been intellectually and vocationally relevant, preparing students for the most influential professions of their times.

He recognised, earlier than most colleagues in Australia, that universities had to adapt their traditional languages curricula to the needs of students wishing to study languages other than English at tertiary level despite having had little or no experience of language study at secondary school. Soon after his appointment to the ANU, he introduced Beginners’ Latin to add to Beginners’ Greek. Other innovations early in his tenure were staff exchanges with other universities and the arrival of the first graduate student.

As Head of Department, he encouraged team-taught courses and collegiality, just as his work on Martianus Capella was developed with his ANU colleague Evan Burge and Bill Stahl in the US.

Dick recognised the importance of art and artefacts for the understanding of a civilisation. His early association with Professor A.D. Trendall fostered this. Then at the ANU he established, in 1962, the Classics Department Museum, which has since then grown to be a great resource for students in Classics and in other fields across the ANU campus, for school students across the ACT and NSW, and for members of the public. The pride of the collection is a handsome Attic black-figure amphora, which was purchased in 1984 precisely to commemorate Dick’s long service to the University and its students as Professor of Classics, 1962–84.

Dick’s dedication to and belief in the Classics extended to the humanities as a whole. He played a crucial role in the establishment within the ANU of the Humanities Research Centre (HRC). In 1968–69, he had gone to North America on behalf of the Vice-Chancellor, Sir John Crawford, to investigate approaches to the humanities there and institutional support for them. His report (1969) led to the formal establishment of the HRC in 1974.

In 1984, Dick left the University to become Secretary of the federal Department of Education and Youth Affairs, under the minister, Susan Ryan. After his return to the University in the late 1980s, he joined a small group based in the Centre for Continuing Education dedicated to educational research. He was a provider of synopses and analyses of educational developments nationally and internationally. During these years, Dick was involved in the foundation of the Open University of Hong Kong (established 1989), as a member of a small international group of distance education experts. And on the ANU campus he facilitated seminars and other kinds of meetings to bring together members of the ANU and of other Australian universities with members of the wider community to discuss educational policy and practice. Until 2010 he was a stalwart and occasional facilitator of the Sunset Seminar, convened at the ANU, in (for the most part, higher) education. To these discussions he was able to attract academics, general staff, senior administrators, senior members of government departments and, occasionally, politicians. Indeed, throughout his life he maintained an abiding interest in the world of tertiary education, and in education more generally and its functions in society.

Early in this century, Dick took up a piece of more academic research, now at the Australian Catholic University, pursuing his interests in theology and spirituality. Dick obtained a Graduate Diploma in Arts (Theology) at the ACU and in 2005 completed a Master of Philosophy degree for a thesis entitled ‘Spirituality in the Parochial and Plain Sermons of John Henry Newman’, a study of the sermons Newman delivered as an Anglican priest.

Dick’s wife of more than 61 years, Mary, died in 2017; he is survived by his three sons and three daughters, and four grandchildren.

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Citation details

Beryl Rawson, Graeme Clarke and Elizabeth Minchin, 'Johnson, Richard St John (Dick) (1929–2019)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 21 April 2024.

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