President John Johns guided Furman through separation from Baptist convention

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John Edwin Johns, whose gregarious nature and passion for civic causes marked his 18-year presidency at Furman University, died Sept. 27, 2007. He was 85.

A B-17 bombardier and navigator who flew 35 combat missions during World War II, Johns used his rural Alabama charm and civic interests to broaden the school's influence and support. He also helped steer the school through its separation from the South Carolina Baptist Convention.

"He was one of the greatest leaders Furman has ever had," said Greenville businessman C. Dan Joyner. "He had all the ingredients it takes to be a great president -- he could be funny, he could be serious, he could be studious. He was one of my heroes. I admired him so much."

Johns, a 1947 Furman graduate who returned to his alma mater as president in 1976, was also an astute businessman. Among his top priorities was a school endowment that stood at $12 million when he became president and had climbed to $109 million when he retired in 1994.

"He got people involved who had never been involved before," said Joyner. Among them was John D. Hollingsworth, who, upon his death, gave the school millions.

Funeral services are set for 2 p.m. Monday at the Charles Ezra Daniel Memorial Chapel at Furman. Burial, with full military honors, will follow in Springwood Cemetery.

Johns is survived by his wife of 60 years, Martha Mauney Johns; three sons, John Edwin Johns Jr., and wife, Tracey, of Greer; Steven Maxwell Johns and wife, Norine, of Simpsonville; and Marcus Mauney Johns of Lilburn, Ga.; and three grandchildren.

David Shi, who succeeded Johns as Furman's president, called Johns "a vital force and feisty personality, a man of engaging warmth and geniality. The students loved his warmth and vigor, and the alumni responded eagerly to his fundraising efforts.

"His strong leadership . . . helped position Furman for greatness."

David Ellison, an alumnus and local business leader, said Johns was instrumental in leading Furman through one of its major events of the 20th century, when it became independent from the Baptist convention.

"He was a terrific fundraiser. Because of his connections and his personality, he had a tremendous impact on Furman University. In my mind, Furman stands for tolerance, Christian love and humanitarianism, and John Johns exhibited all those qualities."

Wayne Weaver, former vice president for business affairs, said Johns "possessed a keen intellect that could reduce complex problems to more manageable issues."

"While he enjoyed telling a good story or joke, one of his most noticeable traits was his interest in caring about people."

Furman graduate and former trustee Mac Christopher, a freshman with Johns in the fall of 1940, said "everyone on the campus knew Johnny Johns" shortly after his arrival. "Even then, you could tell he was destined to be a real leader. John had that unique gift of being able to communicate with people. He could relate to anyone he met, from the custodian to the CEO of the largest corporation."

Former physical plant director Carl Clawson said Johns had been president only a few days when he made the first of many visits to a shed that served as an office for the maintenance crew.

"He asked me if he could talk to the men who take care of our campus. We arranged it a few days later, and he came and told everyone -- carpenters, plumbers, maintenance crew -- how much they meant to the operation. Not many school presidents would do that, but that's the kind of guy he was -- so down-to-earth, and so easy to get to know.

"He'd pop in every now and then, to talk to everyone," Clawson said of Johns, who played in a golf league with physical plant workers.

"He had a very clear knowledge of the whole operation."

Johns' passion for civic work was a model for students. He received the Urban League of the Upstate's coveted Whitney Young Award in 2001 for his service to that organization and for his efforts to encourage volunteer work in low-income neighborhoods.

Johns, who in 1986 was named among the nation's 100 most effective college presidents by the Exxon Education Foundation, was especially proud of Furman's input in the Viola Street project.

"When I drive by Viola Street and see the changes in that neighborhood, it's a wonderful feeling to see how people's lives have improved," Johns told the Urban League in 2001.

Johns' gregarious nature was rooted in his childhood, when his father operated a Baptist orphanage in Arcadia, Fla. As a high school senior, a friend of the orphanage recommended to Johns that he attend Furman.

Johns enrolled in 1941 -- and was on the campus for three months when Pearl Harbor was bombed. Johns left school and immediately enlisted in the Army Air Force, eventually flying 35 combat missions in Europe. He returned to Furman following the war, and while attending school met his eventual wife, Martha Mauney of Shelby, N.C.

Johns earned master's and doctorate degrees at the University of North Carolina and taught history at Stetson University, where he also assumed several administrative positions before being named president of the school in 1970.

In January 1976, Johns declined Furman's offer to serve as president. Two months after he withdrew his name from consideration, a group that included Tom Hartness and Bill Timmons flew to Florida for a discussion that changed Johns' mind -- much to the delight of Martha Johns.

"I loved Stetson, but I was hoping he'd take the Furman job," she said later. "It was like coming home for me."

Johns served on several corporate and civic boards, among them the Peace Center for the Performing Arts, Greenville County Museum of Art, Metropolitan Arts Council, Greater Greenville Chamber of Commerce and the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities.

He was a 33rd Degree Scottish Rite Mason, a director of the Scottish Rite Foundation of South Carolina Inc. and a member of the Royal Order of Scotland. A Rotarian, he was a past district governor of Rotary International, District 699.

Johns was the author of a book, "Florida During the Civil War." He was a recipient of the Order of the Palmetto and the Order of the Silver Crescent from the state of South Carolina.

He was a member of First Baptist Church of Greenville.

When Johns retired in 1994, the couple chose to make their home near the Furman campus, even though he had family connections in Florida and Martha had family in North Carolina. In a 1999 interview with The Greenville News, Johns said, "We decided to pitch our tent where our friends of the last 20 years were."

Abe Hardesty