Ellen Knowlton Johnson, say professors, administrators, and former presidents, never stops caring about the college where she lived, studied, and worked for more than 65 years.
"She is synonymous with Reed and Reed at its best," says Paul Bragdon, Reed president emeritus and current president of the Oregon Graduate Institute.
Ellen Johnson is a living link in Reed's history. Born to a faculty family in 1916, Ellen Knowlton lived and studied on the campus until she married her Reed College sweetheart, Kenneth Johnson '40, in 1940. She returned to the campus in 1942 to work part time for her father, Ansel A. (Tony) Knowlton, a nationally recognized physics professor. In 1945 she began working in the registrar's office, first as a clerical assistant, then as a recorder, and finally as registrar for 19 years. She retired in 1981.
An afternoon conversation with Johnson, a small woman whose curling gray hair outlines a vivacious face, is an excursion through Reed's past. Her memories of Reed, from the time the campus was surrounded by farmland, through the war years, the McCarthy era, and the unrest of the '60s, are as clear as if Johnson were still walking down the corridors of Eliot Hall today.
"Reed taught me to observe," she says from the living room of her Beaverton apartment. "You can't learn if you don't observe. I don't mean in a visual sense, I mean being aware."
She began observing as a youngster: walking across the campus lawn in the summer and seeing a tomato garden growing near where Prexy (then the president's house) now stands, looking out a third-floor window of Old Dorm Block where her parents and two sisters lived, and watching two giant fir trees near the library topple during a winter storm. She remembers playing with other faculty children and later, as a student, attending the teas organized by faculty wives in their homes and those given by her mother in the basement of Eliot Hall. She recalls the day Lawrence Griffin, an early member of Reed's biology department, and his wife took her on a trip to the woods surrounding Lake Oswego.
"We saw a tree completely covered with ladybugs. Dr. Griffin asked me, 'What do you know about ladybugs? Do you know they fly?' For several weeks after that we talked about ladybugs.
"That's Reed; you don't learn something and zip right over it. You stop and learn."
Like many "Reedites" (they didn't start calling themselves "Reedies" until after World War II, Johnson says) it took her five years to graduate, which she did in 1939. Johnson never felt that her Reed instructors favored her because her father was nationally prominent. "I never felt they were giving me anything. I always felt they were expecting more of me."
In 1942, the beginning of World War II, Johnson's campus home became the site of an army camp. A pre-meteorological unit came to the college to study math, physics, English, history, and geography. Johnson's father and Frank L. Griffin, who taught mathematics, directed the training. The soldiers marched up and down the lawns; they bunked in some of the residence halls at Reed and in a building at the corner of 41st and Woodstock.
"There weren't very many students at Reed then," Johnson recalls. "And very few men. Some of the girls said, 'I won't go out with any of those soldiers.' That lasted one weekend."
During the war, Johnson listened to news reports about Hitler's advances on a radio set up in the college chapel. She heard stories from people at Reed who had fled from Germany.