Deceased January 19, 2008
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Victor S. Johnson Jr.
Vic might have become a Chicago legal great but instead engendered a wave of postwar industrialization in the south; fostered political, educational, and artistic enterprises; and rose to civil eminence in Nashville.
Amherst honored him with an LLD degree in 1978, his 40th Reunion year. Noting his many accomplishments, the citation ended with these words:
“For the man you are, for your reminder of what Amherst College may hope to achieve through the life and work of those who graduate from here, we thank you and we honor you.”
Vic was one of ten ’38ers to receive honorary degrees over the years.*
Impressive as this was, I remember him more for his impish wit and erudition. He loved to allege, as he often did, that Amherst men, including himself, tended to marry above themselves. Less gallantly, he also joked about a Harvard 15th Reunion attendee who said his classmates looked the same, but they all had middle-aged wives.
In his latest years, he immersed himself in literature and philosophy at his wooded home in Nashville. His letters to me as Class secretary usually included literary, political, and philosophical tracts, often from his favorite author, George Santayana.
He said he was hoping to attend our 70th Reunion, but colon cancer carried him off on January 19. He was ninety-one.
Born and bred in Chicago, Vic was interested in literature and political science at Amherst and belonged to Phi Delta Theta fraternity. He got a law degree from Harvard, worked on the War Production Board, and served in the US Army Air Force. He married Nancy McKisson, also a Chicagoan, in 1946. He said he had intended to pursue a legal career in his hometown but got involved in running the family business, the Mantel Lamp Company of America, founded by his father, who died in 1943.
Becoming Aladdin Industries, the firm moved to Nashville in 1949 and expanded from kerosene lamps to insulated bottles, lunch boxes, and similar products.
John Stifler ’68 said his father, Bill Stifler ’39, an electricity company plant manager, was hired by Vic to head the firm’s new electronic division in 1954, and the family moved from upstate New York to Nashville.
“Vic probably did as much as any other one person to make Nashville part of what was becoming the new south,” John said.
“Beyond running a business, he poured money and great talent into development of a large industrial area, many civic organizations, arts, and educational institutions, notably including Meharry Medical College, which had been founded as a medical school for African-American students at a time when segregation was pretty much still a going concern.”
“He was never concerned about getting a lot of credit for himself,” John added. “The only reason the family business came to an end was that his son, Torry Johnson, chose law over business and is now Nashville’s district attorney.”
In its obituary, the Nashville Tennessean also noted that Johnson worked hard to establish a metro system extending government facilities region-wide.
Besides his wife and son, Vic is survived by a daughter, Christine Tyler, three granddaughters, and two grandsons. A memorial service was held at the First Presbyterian Church.
George Bria ’38
*The others were Alexander, Bodine, Edds, Jeppson, Kobler, Kranzberg, Reuter, Roberts and Whiting.