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Former Milligan president, minister Johnson dies at 90

By Rex Barber
Press Staff Writer

He also played key role in founding Appalachian Christian Village, Emmanuel School of Religion

Dr. Jess Johnson, former Milligan College president, co-founder of Appalachian Christian Village, an instrumental participant in the founding of Emmanuel School of Religion and pastor to many, died at his Jonesborough home Thursday morning. He was 90.

Johnson became president of Milligan in 1968, seven years after moving to Johnson City, where he pastored at First Christian Church downtown.

Born in Kansas City, Mo., Johnson moved with his parents to California shortly after his birth. He lived in fruit camps, picking whatever crops his family could find during the Great Depression, moving up the West Coast until they settled in Oregon.

He became involved with First Christian Church in Johnson City and was asked to become its minister after attending a church conference in Atlanta in 1959.

Shortly before his 90th birthday last May, Johnson told the Johnson City Press he intended to increase the attendance at First Christian, found a local seminary and establish a home for the elderly when he began pastoring here. His Milligan presidency was an added bonus.

“So the three things I came here for, I accomplished and then became president of Milligan College,” he said in May. “I hadn’t anticipated that.”

Johnson retired from Milligan in 1982 and moved back to Oregon. He returned in 1991 and began his ministry again at Downtown Christian Church as a minister of calling, something he continued well into his 90th year. Johnson said he didn’t know how to retire from God.

Milligan’s current president, Donald Jeanes, knew Johnson while attending Milligan.

“ … I think Jess was certainly committed to Milligan College and he worked hard for the college,” Jeanes said. He said Johnson’s tenure as president came at a time when college enrollments were dropping because the Vietnam War was ending and student deferment for military service was no longer necessary.

“He had a lot of challenges and he worked hard to overcome them,” Jeanes said. “I always found him to be concerned about students, concerned about Milligan.”

Dr. Jack Knowles, professor of English and chairman of human learning at Milligan, knew Johnson from his days as a Milligan student also. Knowles was even a friend of Johnson’s son, Cecil. Knowles recalled visiting Johnson’s home on North Roan Street.

“He was a bright, very, very warm person,” he said Thursday afternoon. “I always felt welcome in the home, as a student. He was always gracious and had a wonderful smile that made you feel welcome.”

Knowles said Johnson believed deeply in Milligan’s mission and also in the area as a whole.

“I think his ministry at First Christian Church and the work in establishing the (Appalachian Christian) Village and Emmanuel, in addition to his presidency of Milligan, I think you put those together, he has had a big influence on Northeast Tennessee,” he said. “A very positive influence.”

Funeral arrangements are incomplete.

Appalachian Funeral Home and Cremation Services, 800 E. Watauga Ave., is serving the Johnson family.

Johnson City Press Article


MILLIGAN UNIVERSITY is a Christian liberal arts university in Northeast Tennessee whose vision is to change lives and shape culture through a commitment to servant leadership. The university offers more than 100 majors, minors, pre-professional degrees and concentrations in a variety of fields, along with graduate and adult degree completion programs.  To learn more about Milligan University, visit www.milligan.edu or call 800-262-8337.

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