The Passing of a “Rock Star”

It is with great sadness that we post the following obituary, sent only moments ago by Andrea Lunsford. Andrea was the first to notify the Coalition membership of Nan’s passing, and has been in Columbus, Ohio with Nan’s family, attending to the news. – Tarez Graban

Nan Johnson, professor of English emerita at The Ohio State University, passed away peacefully on August 31, 2019, surrounded by her family and dear friends. Nan was born in Greeley, Colorado in 1951. At just one month old, she found herself aboard an Army transport aircraft headed to Germany where she, her mother Jean, and her older brother Robb joined dad Hugh who was assigned to a U.S. Army post-WW II EOD (Explosive Ordinance Division). After being posted all over the world, the family settled in Leavenworth, Kansas where Nan graduated from high school and later received a BA and MA from Kansas State University. Her growing interest in the field of rhetoric and literacy coupled with her not-so-hidden desire to become a rock star took her to California where she received a second MA and a Ph.D. at the University of Southern California, studying with the legendary Ross Winterowd and Marjorie Perloff. In 1981, she joined Andrea Lunsford in the University of British Columbia English Department, where she taught courses in the history of rhetoric and advanced writing. From 1990 until her retirement in 2018, she was professor of English at The Ohio State University, helping to build one of the most distinguished graduate programs in rhetoric and composition in the country.

Throughout her career, Nan was an inspiring teacher. As one student put it: “Professor Johnson is the best professor I have ever had. She is really funny, smart, nice, and she cares a lot about us.” Nan’s exemplary teaching was recognized with many awards, including Ohio State’s prestigious Botoman Award for Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching and Mentoring, the English Graduate Organization Professor of the Year award, and the Undergraduate Teaching Excellence award. Although it is not unusual for a teacher and scholar of her caliber to have won numerous awards, few have had awards named for them. In 2009, the Women’s Coalition for the History of Rhetoric and Composition initiated the Nan Johnson Graduate Travel award as a recognition of her contributions as a scholar and mentor in the field of feminist historiography.

Nan’s excellence in teaching was matched by her excellence in scholarship. Two groundbreaking studies – Nineteenth Century Rhetoric in North America (1991) and Gender and Rhetorical Space in American Life: 1866-1910 (2002) – established her as a major voice in rhetorical history and feminism. Scores of articles, reviews, and invited lectures and conference presentations attest to the influence she had on generations of young scholars. A lifelong collector, especially of 19th century rhetorical texts, she contributed all of these materials to establish the Nan Johnson Collection on Elocution and Rhetoric at The Ohio State University Libraries. These books, letters, and ephemera are now available to scholars. In recognition of the collection’s significance, the Department of English created the Nan Johnson Archival Research Fund to support scholarly access.

Outside of her professional life, Nan continued to enjoy her lifelong love of music. She was known on occasion to surprise and delight colleagues and conference goers with impromptu vocal performances and is lovingly remembered by her daughter Isabel as the mommy who made up songs.  An avid gardener, Nan kept up a beautiful garden of flowers, herbs and vegetable plants at her Clintonville home. In the last fifteen years, she discovered a new love and talent for paper art, which she produced from an in-home basement studio. Nan exhibited her work twice through Paper Moon, a collective of female, Columbus-based artists.

Nan Johnson is survived by her wife Abigail Jones, daughter Isabel and her partner Ned Vogel, brother Robb, sister-in-law Barbara, and extended family in California, Colorado, and Texas, along with countless friends, colleagues and former students. Her family and loved ones are deeply grateful for the care she received from Dr. Bhuvaneswari Ramaswamy and her team at The Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital. A private cremation will be held, followed by a celebration of life at a date to be announced. Contributions in Nan’s memory can be made to The Stefanie Spielman Comprehensive Breast Cancer Center or to The Ohio State University Department of English Nan Johnson Archival Research Fund.