Elon mourns the passing of Elon Law Dean Emeritus George R. Johnson, Jr.

A towering figure in the North Carolina legal community, Dean Emeritus and Professor of Law George R. Johnson, Jr., who shepherded Elon Law through its first accreditation process with the American Bar Association, died November 15 following a lengthy illness.

A founding member of Elon University School of Law’s faculty and a distinguished giant in the North Carolina legal community has died following a lengthy illness that he fought for years at Elon Law while teaching and mentoring hundreds of aspiring attorneys.

Dean Emeritus and Professor of Law George R. Johnson, Jr., passed away November 15. Details of memorial services will be shared in the coming days.

Dean Emeritus George R. Johnson, Jr., at Elon Law’s Commencement exercises for the Class of 2012

“Legal education and Elon University have lost a great leader of integrity and intellect in Dean Emeritus and Professor George R. Johnson, Jr.,” said Elon President Connie Ledoux Book. “His many contributions and mentorship of students have forever impacted and made better Elon Law. We are deeply grateful and George will be sorely missed. Our hearts and prayers are with his family and friends.”

Johnson was instrumental in guiding Elon Law through its first accreditation process with the American Bar Association. As dean, he oversaw a self-study and hosted ABA representatives who reviewed all aspects of the law school.

“The ABA’s full approval of Elon Law gives me hope that legal education can rise to the challenge of doing more than teaching law students to be excellent lawyers, but also preparing them to take on the great challenges facing our society,” Johnson said at the time. “Elon is at the forefront of a vital effort in legal education to ensure that law students succeed not only as excellent lawyers, but also skilled leaders dedicated to addressing regional, national and global challenges.”

Elon Law Dean Luke Bierman, in announcing Johnson’s passing to the law school community, said that Johnson’s passion for teaching and mentoring was evident in everything he accomplished.

From left: David Gergen, former adviser to four U.S. presidents and chair of the Elon Law Board of Advisors; retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor; then-Elon President Leo M. Lambert; and then-Dean George R. Johnson Jr., together in 2012 at Elon Law for a national conference on leadership.

“His scholarship and professional achievements notwithstanding, what strikes me most about Dean Johnson’s legacy at Elon Law is the sheer volume of students and graduates he mentored and inspired, notably but by no means exclusively through the Black Law Students Association,” Bierman said. “Dean Johnson recognized the power of diversity, equity and inclusion, not only at Elon Law, but across the profession, which must continue to make strides in mirroring the communities we serve as attorneys and advocates.

“It is most fitting, then, that the North Carolina Bar Association recently named Dean Johnson a 2020 Legal Legend of Color, an honor that I hope brings his family and friends much comfort in the days ahead. For us all, may his memory encourage us in our work to ensure equal access to legal representation and true justice for all.”

A 1976 graduate of Columbia Law, Johnson started his legal career as assistant counsel for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs. The Carter Administration welcomed him to the Executive Office of the President in 1979 as assistant general counsel for the White House Council on Wage and Price Stability.

Elon Law Dean Emeritus George Johnson and his wife, Dr. Linda Morris, in October 2020. (Photo by Jerry Wolford and Scott Muthersbaugh / Perfecta Visuals)

His teaching career began in 1981 at George Mason University, with a subsequent appointment at Howard University School of Law. Johnson served from 1996 to 2002 as president of LeMoyne-Owen College in Tennessee, then entered private practice in 2003 at Saint Louis & Johnson law firm in Washington.

Johnson joined the Elon Law faculty in time to welcome the charter class in 2006 and he served as the school’s first associate dean of academic affairs. When Leary Davis, the school’s founding dean, retired in 2008, Johnson served as interim dean for six months before his ultimate selection to permanently lead the school until his decision to return to the faculty ranks in 2014.

In addition to his teaching, Johnson chronicled the legal status of African Americans from 1790 to 1883 for the African-American Almanac. He edited a book on the legacy of George Mason and authored law review articles on coastal zone management, judicial review and enforcement policies of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

A portrait of Johnson, commissioned and presented to him in 2015 during a special ceremony where he was granted the title of dean emeritus, greets visitors to the Cemala Foundation Commons on Elon Law’s top floor.

“George Johnson was a distinguished lawyer, educator, college president and dean,” said Elon President Emeritus Leo M. Lambert. “Elon was fortunate to have him guide our young law school in its very early days, first as associate dean and then dean. He was a wise and valued member of my senior staff and brought steadiness and clear-eyed thinking to important issues facing the University.

“Most important of all, George embodied the qualities of kindness and civility and lived a life committed to equal justice for all.”

Johnson is survived by his wife, Linda; their son, William, and his family.