"I remember looking up at my father and asking, 'Are you famous?' All I knew was that he was my father."
Knowlton began his teaching career at Carleton College, where he was mainly a coach and, incidentally, a physics teacher. He finally realized he liked to teach and attended graduate school at the University of Chicago. Knowlton joined Reed in 1915, about the same time that Albert Einstein's paper on general relativity was published. He retired in 1948.
Nicholas Wheeler '55, Reed's A.A. Knowlton Professor of Physics, calls Knowlton a "determined teacher, a teacher first and foremost," someone who would spend an entire Saturday morning doing an experiment with a student interested in the properties of iron filings.
Knowlton's daughter was no less determined as Reed's registrar, said Wheeler, who became acquainted with her first as a student in 1951 and later as a faculty member in 1963.
"Our de facto leader was Ellen, always with a smile. She gently kept us honest and informal. She was almost like Betty Crocker, standing up and telling us where we should be at such and such a time. Presidents came and went, but Ellen was always there."
After the war, Reed, which had attracted mainly Portland students, became a magnet for former soldiers from around the country. GI funds made college possible for more people, and transportation also improved. The college went through a "geographical shift," Johnson says. Local high school graduates sat in the same classrooms with worldly-wise soldiers. The intellectual stimulus at Reed was "fabulous."
"Each was spurring the other on. It was a magnificent period. The whole world felt spring had come--it was relief from the end of the war. Then we were getting students from other parts of the country. It was wonderful."
But as a registrar, Johnson had to squeeze a growing population of transfer students into a limited number of classrooms, all housed in Eliot Hall. Conversations at morning coffees and faculty meetings centered on the need to expand the number of instructors and buildings. Johnson attended those meetings, kept student records, made out student schedules, and assigned rooms to faculty members. All with pen and ink and a typewriter. Computers were at least 40 years away.
"Reed formed my life all the way around. Did it teach me to be a registrar? No, but it gave me basic skills. Did I feel discriminated against because I was a woman? No. The only thing I felt discriminated about was that I wasn't a teacher. Everyone was a teacher, and I was helping them to be teachers."
Richard Dent, former director of financial aid, remembers Johnson as a "tremendous mentor" when he began working at Reed.
"Ellen was very kind and helpful in getting me started in the ways of understanding Reed," says Dent. "I remember those first 10 years very fondly," he adds. "She cares greatly about this place."
Despite its intense focus on academic achievement, Reed's commitment to free speech and free spirits has sometimes been misunderstood. Johnson still bristles when she remembers how many times she heard people mistakenly state that the college's founder was John Reed, the Portland journalist who moved to Russia and embraced the Bolshevik Revolution.
"It has always been a school that catered to certain intellectual capacities," Johnson said. "It has been interested in intellectual pursuits, not in large athletic contests. It was difficult for people to understand."