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Joe W. Johnson, UC Berkeley professor emeritus and pioneer in coastal engineering, dies at age 93
18 April 2002

By Jan Ambrosini, College of Engineering

Berkeley - Joe W. Johnson, professor emeritus of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, a pioneer in the field of coastal engineering and a popular instructor, has died at the age of 93.

Johnson died peacefully on April 11 at his home in Victoria, Canada, where he had been living for the past 14 years.

Born in 1908 in Kansas, Johnson grew up in Winslow, Ariz., and Los Angeles, Calif. He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in civil engineering at UC Berkeley in 1931 and 1934, respectively. After graduation, he worked for several years with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Waterways Experiment Station in Vicksburg, Miss., and the Soil Conservation Service in Washington, D.C. Johnson returned to UC Berkeley as a faculty member in 1942.

During his 33-year tenure at UC Berkeley, Johnson became an authority on coastal engineering and helped define it as a separate discipline within civil engineering. He served as chairman of the Division of Hydraulic and Sanitary Engineering and as director of the Hydraulic Engineering Laboratory, and was an archivist and founder of the Water Resources Center Archives.

"He was one of the first researchers to really study beach erosion, particularly in areas of development," said Robert Wiegel, professor emeritus of civil engineering at UC Berkeley and one of Johnson's longtime colleagues. Johnson's expertise earned him a prestigious Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in 1955 to study sedimentary processes at river mouths, harbor entrances and adjacent beaches.

Johnson was instrumental in pushing for the inclusion of erosion prevention measures - using dredges, pumps and pipelines - in the planning process of new harbor development.

Wiegel, who came to UC Berkeley in 1946 as a graduate student, remembers Johnson as an extremely dedicated and generous teacher who would frequently let students and their families vacation in a Sierra Nevada cottage he owned with his wife. "He was always available for his students, no question about it," said Wiegel.

Throughout his career, Johnson served as a consultant for state, federal, and international bodies on shoreline and harbor problems in Venezuela, Brazil, Australia, the United States and other areas around the world.

His numerous projects included an assessment of water levels during the construction of BART, an analysis of port development for the Suez Canal, and a study of beach erosion for the Zion Atomic Power Plant in Illinois.

Johnson also demonstrated exceptional writing and editing prowess. As secretary for the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Coastal Engineering Research Council, he managed 15 international conferences during the 1960s and 1970s and edited major international coastal engineering publications for the conference proceedings. He also served as editor-in-chief of Shore and Beach, the journal of the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association, from 1974 to 1988.

Johnson received many honors for his leadership in the field of coastal engineering. He was a member of the National Academy of Engineering, a distinction also earned by his brother, Robert Johnson, making them one of the few sibling pairs ever elected to the academy. Robert Johnson earned his bachelor's and master's degree in mechanical engineering at UC Berkeley in 1940 and 1941, respectively.

Joe Johnson was also an honorary member of ASCE, a recipient of an Outstanding Civilian Service Medal from the Department of the Army for service to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, winner of the prestigious Berkeley Citation, and a recipient of ASCE's Moffatt-Nichol Harbor and Coastal Engineering Award. The California Shore and Beach Preservation Association honored Johnson, a founding member, by establishing an annual award for outstanding achievement in coastal engineering in his name.

Johnson's enthusiasm for engineering extended beyond his professional life. He was well known for his personal interest and expertise in the history of the use of hydraulics for mining gold in California.

Johnson is survived by his younger brother, Robert, of Laguna Niguel; two daughters, Christina Johnson-Dean and Cornelia Johnson, both of Victoria, British Columbia; and several grandchildren.

A memorial service is planned for Sunday, April 21, in British Columbia. The family said contributions may be made to academic institutions to honor Johnson's strong support of education.

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