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July 30, 2004

Press Contact: Kirston Fortune, UT Law, 512- 232-1229, Jodi Bart, UT Law, (512) 471-7330

In Memoriam: Professor Corwin W. Johnson, 1917-2004

Johnson joined the faculty of UT Law in 1947,
and remained affiliated with the Law School until his death

Photo of Professor Corwin W. Johnson Corwin W. Johnson

AUSTIN, Texas — Corwin W. Johnson, a law professor at The University of Texas at Austin for almost six decades and a national expert on property law and water law, died Thursday, July 29, after suffering a stroke. He was 86 years old.

“Corwin was a pillar of the Law School community for over half a century. He was a great teacher and scholar. But even more than that, he was a great friend. We will all miss him,” said UT Law Dean Bill Powers.

“Everyone associated with the Law School will deeply miss Corwin Johnson,” said Professor Steven Goode, associate dean for academic affairs at the UT School of Law. “To use a term from his beloved law of property, he was a ‘fixture’ here, and it’s hard to believe he is gone. While his death leaves a large void, his good nature and intellect will live on in the hearts of all his colleagues and the thousands of students he taught over his more than half-century at UT,” Goode said.

A memorial service will be held for Professor Johnson at 2 p.m. on Tuesday, August 3, at the University United Methodist Church, 2409 Guadalupe St., in Austin. The University of Texas will honor Professor Johnson by flying all flags at half mast on Thursday, August 5.

Johnson was born in Hamlet, Indiana, on October 5, 1917. He graduated from the University of Iowa with a Bachelor of Arts and Juris Doctor degrees. He also studied at Yale Law School as a Sterling Fellow. During World War II he served as a Special Agent of the F.B.I., engaged in counter-espionage and other law enforcement activities in field offices in Memphis, New Orleans, and San Francisco.

Professor Johnson joined the faculty of The University of Texas School of Law in September 1947 as an assistant professor. He retired in 1988 as the Edward Clark Centennial Professor Emeritus, but through a modified service policy, continued to teach half time for more than a dozen years. Johnson specialized in land use regulation, property law, and water resource allocation and management. He was co-author with John E. Cribbet, Roger W. Findley, and Ernest E. Smith of a leading property casebook, Property: Cases and Materials (8th ed., 2003). Johnson was co-author with John E. Cribbet of a treatise, Principles of The Law of Property (3rd ed., 1989).

Johnson was extensively involved in the development of Texas water law during the second half of the twentieth century. Through publishing articles, advising Texas legislative agencies, and organizing and participating in conferences, he played an important role in the evolution of water law in Texas. On June 15, 2004, he spoke at the Texas State Capitol as part of a symposium commemorating the 100th anniversary of the rule of capture. The symposium, sponsored by the Texas Water Development Board, was his last public speaking engagement.

Suzanne Hassler, an assistant to Johnson for eight years, said that Johnson and his wife, Evelyn, loved to travel, taking trips around the world. “They traveled quite extensively when classes were not in session.” The Johnson’s had just celebrated their 62nd wedding anniversary and “had a very happy day together on Saturday,” Hassler said.

Faculty at the Law School expressed sadness at the loss of their long-time colleague and shared some memories. “In his teaching, Corwin will always be remembered for the clarity of his approach to issues, his understated sense of humor and an occasional outrageously bad pun,” Professor Ernest Smith said. “Academically, Corwin is deservedly famous for his co-authorship of one of the country's most enduring casebooks, Property: Cases and Materials. The casebook first appeared in 1960 and 44 years later it is in its 8th edition and is still widely used in law schools throughout the country. It was only a couple of months ago that Corwin and I were discussing plans for a 9th edition. His sudden and tragic death leaves a vacuum that will be difficult to fill,” Smith said.

“When Ernest Smith and I joined the faculty in 1963, each of us was assigned to teach first-year Property. Corwin Johnson had already been teaching Property at the Law School for 16 years. Corwin was a helpful and considerate mentor to us greenhorns, as he was to his many students in over 50 years of teaching,” said Professor Stanley Johanson. “Corwin's easy-going demeanor, his dry wit, and his accessibility were useful antidotes to the pressures faced by his anxious first-year students. Corwin always had time to chat with students and colleagues in the corridors of Townes Hall and in his open-door office. Corwin Johnson's contributions to the Law School and to the legal profession were enormous,” Johanson said.

Professor Russell Weintraub said, “Corwin Johnson was the kindest man I have ever known. I never heard him say a nasty word about anyone. He was a great scholar and teacher. Among his many accomplishments was a focus on what we now know as environmental law before most of us knew that such a field existed.”

“Corwin Johnson was chair of the Appointments Committee that hired me. He and Evelyn took me out on their boat on Lake Austin, and were always very gracious,” said Professor Robert Dawson. “I always enjoyed Corwin's company and his impish sense of humor,” he said. Students also relished Johnson’s humor in the classroom. “He could keep a straight face and come out with some real dry, humorous comment. Sometimes it would take a second or two to realize he was making a joke or being sarcastic,”said Professor John Sutton, who joined UT Law about 10 years after Johnson. Sutton would also use humor around Johnson. “I used to kid Corwin about his age, because he was two months older than I was.” He and Johnson also shared the distinction of working for the FBI during World War II. “I’ve only known one other law professor in the country that was an FBI agent. And it was unusual for two former agents to be teaching here at one school.”

Professor David Anderson remembers Johnson’s “beautiful tenor voice” and how he often sang in skits for Assault and Flattery, the Law School’s annual variety show. Johnson sang and danced at the first variety show in 1952 along with several other professors. Professor David Robertson recalls Johnson’s theatrical talents as well. “He was a skilled actor, with a brilliant wide smile and an excellent singing voice,” Robertson said. “When he sang his own version of Mr. Wonderful, a tin-pan-alley song—‘Mr. Wonderful, that’s me’—it brought down the house.”

Professor Douglas Laycock, associate dean for research at UT Law, recalled his first encounter with Johnson. “When I first arrived as a young professor in 1981, Corwin Johnson was many years my senior, but he was one of the very first to greet me, take me to lunch, and invite my wife and me to his house,“ Laycock said. “He was part of the first generation of faculty who came to the Law School from other parts of the country, with no prior connection to Texas—the generation that made this a national law school instead of a very good regional law school. He was also part of the transition from racially segregated to racially integrated legal education at Texas, a change he enthusiastically supported,” Laycock said. “He served this law school well for nearly sixty years. Fortunately for all of us, he recently completed an interview for the Tarlton Library's oral history project.”

When Johnson arrived at the Law School, segregation was legal, and Heman Sweatt, an African American, had been denied admission. In the oral history interview published last fall, Johnson talks about being repelled by segregation and teaching in the “separate but equal” law school created by the State of Texas in response to Sweatt’s lawsuit challenging the exclusion of African Americans from UT. In 1947, Professor Johnson taught first-year Property to the two students who were enrolled at the school. In 1950, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Sweatt v. Painter that this segregation of legal education was unconstitutional.

James A. Baker III, the former U.S. Secretary of State and Secretary of the Treasury, was a student of Professor Johnson’s in 1954 and wrote the foreword to his oral history. Baker remembers him as a “wise, patient, and gentle man.” He wrote, “he used the Socratic method, but he leavened its harsh justice with genuine kindness. We tried harder next time because we didn’t want to disappoint him.” Students at UT Law dedicated their 1958 yearbook, The Peregrinus, to Johnson, and alumni and the Class of 1964 established The Corwin W. Johnson Class of ’64 Endowed Presidential Scholarship in Law in his honor.

Johnson is survived by his wife, Evelyn Johnson, his sister, Marceil Weston, his two sons, Kent Johnson and Kirk Johnson, and his three grandchildren, Cory Johnson, Doug Johnson and Scott Johnson.

His family requests that, in lieu of flowers, charitable contributions be made to The Corwin W. Johnson Class of ’64 Endowed Presidential Scholarship in Law. Checks should be made out to "The University of Texas at Austin" and mailed care of the Dean’s Office to: UT Law School, 727 East Dean Keeton St., Austin, Texas, 78705.