Remembering Professor Emeritus Ben Johnson

Photo of Professor Emeritus Ben Johnson

Dear friends, colleagues and alumni, 

This post includes several reflections from students and colleagues to commemorate Professor Emeritus Guy Benton “Ben” Johnson Jr., who died Jan. 8, 2024, in his home. 

I had the good fortune of meeting with him for lunch just days before. Ben was 95 years old and lived a graceful and generous life. He made many outstanding contributions to the University of Oregon's Department of Sociology, its students, and the wider discipline of sociology. Shortly after his retirement, he helped found and financially sustain the Wasby-Johnson Dissertation Award for the university's sociology graduate students. He enjoyed hearing about graduate student research over lunches with recipients of the award. This fed him in many ways. I know he departed us with a sincere appreciation of sociology, and the students who carry it forward.

If you wish to honor Ben’s work and life with a financial gift, please consider giving to the Department of Sociology General Foundation, the Wasby-Johnson Dissertation Award, or to the UO’s Center for the Study of Women in Society (via the U of O Foundation).

Please join family, friends, and students for Johnson's memorial 1:30 pm Saturday, Jan. 27, at Cascade Manor Auditorium, 65 W 30th Ave. in Eugene. Cards and condolences can be sent care of the Johnson family at 2635 SE Caruthers, Portland, OR 97214.

His obituary in the Register-Guard


Michael Dreiling, Professor and Head of Sociology

Below are additional reflections on Ben’s work and life by a former colleague and several of his former students. Combined, these statements offer a commemoration of his professional service and life.


Professor Emerita Marion Goldman
University of Oregon

Ben Johnson, part of the sociology department during five decades, died at home on January 8. Until his last hours, Ben was engaged with sociology, the University of Oregon, and current and former Sociology Department graduate students.

After retirement, he sustained his commitment to graduate students by helping craft and fund the annual Wasby-Johnson Research Award, that offers two doctoral students summer stipends for dissertation research and writing and also for travel for research or professional meetings the following academic year.

Ben earned his doctorate from Harvard and when he arrived in Eugene in 1955 he embodied the contemporary ideal of a white male professor trained at an elite institution. But beneath his button-down shirts and tweeds lurked someone motivated by curiosity and interest and support of competing paradigms, including feminism and Marxism.

He chaired the Sociology Department twice, and he helped found and chair the Department of Religious Studies at UO. From 1972 to 1974, he was editor of his subfield’s most influential journal, The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. He was also president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, the Association for the Sociology of Religion, and the Religious Research Association. He published a monograph, Functionalism in Modern Sociology and co-authored the award-winning Vanishing Boundaries: The Religion of Protestant Baby Boomers. Two of his articles remain foundational to the sociology of religion: “On Church and Sect” (1963) and “On Founders and Followers: Some Factors in the Development of new Religious Movements” (1992).

Talcott Parsons, the father of much-critiqued structural functionalism, mentored Ben at Harvard. Parsons sought to develop a model that could frame everything about all societies, and Ben was often critical of his work. However, Ben’s teaching and research always reflected a Parsonian emphasis on social theory and attention to the interdependencies of social structure and action.

Miriam Johnson, also a Harvard Ph.D., accompanied Ben to Oregon along with their toddler daughter and infant son. At the time no women could dine at the campus faculty club. That changed in 1968, but until 1972 only one person in a married couple was allowed to be hired on tenure track in the same department. Nevertheless, she continued her research and writing and taught as an adjunct in Sociology until she was hired on a tenure line in 1972. Although Ben and Miriam carefully set boundaries at work, they inspired and sustained each other. Ben’s thoughtfulness and commitment to sociology is best summed up in Miriam’s forward to her book, Strong Mothers, Weak Wives (1988.) She thanked Ben for his sustained, quiet support and “being with me and for me.” That was true for Ben in his many friendships at the UO and beyond.

Reflections from Nico Stehr, PhD (1970) 
Karl-Mannheim-Professor Emeritus, Zeppelin University, Germany 

I am honored to share my heartfelt testimonial for Professor Ben Johnson, a distinguished scholar, an immensely successful mentor to generations of undergraduate and graduate students, and a longtime chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of Oregon who fostered a collaborative and inclusive environment. Having had the privilege of being part of the academic community under his leadership, I would like to express my deep admiration and gratitude for his extraordinary contributions to the fields of higher education and sociological theory.

As an inspiring mentor and dedicated teacher, Ben has played a pivotal role in fostering the academic and personal growth of countless students. His pedagogical approach goes beyond the conventional, encouraging critical thinking, fostering intellectual curiosity and instilling a passion for understanding the intricate historical interplay of social forces. Under his leadership, the Department of Sociology at the University of Oregon became a vibrant center of intellectual inquiry and academic excellence, launching the academic careers of many of his students. His deep insights into sociological theory and his emphasis on interdisciplinary dialogue, especially with history, have been instrumental in shaping the intellectual landscape of many of his students.

One of Johnson's remarkable qualities as a mentor was his ability to recognize and cultivate the unique strengths of each student. Whether providing guidance on research projects, career advice or simply a sympathetic ear during difficult times, he creates a supportive and empowering environment that encourages students to reach their full potential. His mentorship extends far beyond the confines of the classroom, as he invests time and energy in building meaningful, lasting relationships with those he mentors.

Professor Ben Johnson's lasting impact on the UO and its sociology department and the broader academic community is immeasurable. His legacy is one of scholarly excellence, mentorship, and leadership that will continue to inspire generations of sociologists.

Echo Fields
Emeritus faculty in sociology, Southern Oregon University 

Ben was the first faculty member I met when I arrived at the U of O to start grad school in the fall 1975 term. He (and Don Van Houten) supported members of that unruly cohort through some intense and complicated times in the department: there was a period back then when he was sometimes referred to as “Benny the Snake" (but that’s a long story). He took it with mostly good humor. Memories of little things about Ben stand out the most: parties at Ben and Mimi Johnson’s house, Don and Joan Acker dancing in the living room. Ben drinking martinis in the kitchen, propped up against the fridge. Ben never repressed his broad smile, had an infectious laugh and possessed a wry but genteel demeanor that reflected his roots in North Carolina. We know he missed Mimi deeply in these last years. He balanced being a scholar and teacher and a caring human being. Many of us are grateful for having been his students, as well as his friend. 

Phil Zuckerman
Associate Dean and Professor of Sociology and Secular Studies at Pitzer College 

In the early 1990s, I was an undergrad at the UO. I took Sociology of Religion with Ben Johnson, and, well, that was that. I was enthralled, engaged, inspired. I continued at the UO for graduate school and had the deeply good fortune of working with Ben for the next five years. This was the bright beginning of my life-long intellectual passion/career. Ben was such a dream mentor. He took me to my first academic conference and introduced me to various big-wigs. He turned me on to so much important research and literature. He shared his insights. But, best of all, were the regular lunches we had together when we would discuss my academic progress, my research, religion, irreligion, family and life. He was always so kind, so supportive, so friendly. And I loved it when he would crack some funny quip or convey some juicy gossip about this or that scholar and immediately burst into a full-throttle laugh, with his eyes alight and his mouth wide open and his tongue sticking out in glee. I’m also grateful that he never wanted me to read any Talcott Parsons. Ben and I stayed in touch over the years. If I happened to be in Eugene, we’d meet for breakfast. We would email on occasion. Talk on the phone now and then. He was such a warm light in my life. He always made me feel good. I carry that with me.

Scott McNall 
Professor of Sociology at the University of Nebraska

I received an NDEA scholarship to attend the University of Oregon in the fall of 1962. I decided to move early with my family to Eugene, assuming I could find work and earn enough money to pay for food and rent before the semester started. I could find no job because they had already been taken by other students. So, I wandered over to the sociology department to see if they had anything to offer me. I found only one professor in their office, and he offered me a job. Ben gave me a large stack of IBM punch cards and set me the task of using the IBM card sorter to figure out social and economic differences between religious groups. I was so interested in what he was studying that I decided I would major in the sociology of religion.

I took the regular course Ben offered in the sociology of religion, as well as some reading and conference courses from him. He was a stickler for grammar and spelling, which was not my strong suit at that point. He also insisted on the correct use of Latin phrases I tried to sprinkle into my work.

He also gave me a lot of leeway and more trust than I might have deserved — at the beginning of my career. He was going out of town for a conference and asked me to give a lecture to the other graduate students on a Marxist view of religion. I did. It went well, and forever after, I was identified as a student with "Marxist" leanings.

Ben was the first professor my wife and I invited to our home on Pearl Street. We probably fed Ben and Mimi spaghetti, as that was deluxe fare for graduate students.

He was my dissertation adviser, and I completed my work and was out the door and off to the University of Minnesota by the fall of 1965. We never lost touch with one another. We saw one another at sociology meetings, went out to dinner and gossiped about who was doing what. Occasionally I would send him a draft of something I was working on, and I would get corrections back. The last time I received comments from him on a paper was in 2023. He had an eye for detail. Ben always visited us when he was passing through, whether in California, Minnesota, or Montana. If I had published something recently, he would ask very pointed questions about it. It was like taking orals all over again. I learned more about Ben during our visits, including the fact that he went around naming all the plants in our yard and giving Latin names for them. He also talked a lot about both his immediate and extended family, who meant a great deal to him.

Ben never stopped being a teacher, because he loved it. When he and Mimi moved into Cascade Manor, he looked forward to the intellectual life that was available. He eventually taught a course on Adam Smith and had great fun. I asked him why they had picked a unit right on the street. His answer was, “Mimi and I missed the noise of living in a city.”

Ben will be missed by many people and those of us who he helped guide on to our careers.