Erwin V. Johanningmeier

I was sorry to hear earlier this spring that my former colleague Erv Johanningmeier had died. As the chair of a search committee in 1996, he was responsible for Barbara Shircliffe, Chris Ogren, and my coming to the University of South Florida.1 In my job interview I found a gruff, intellectually curious future colleague who took me out for dinner with a colleague and was pleased that I could share a bottle of wine and still keep talking coherently about the history of education. I suspect that (and the reference by Michael Katz) was most of the reason why I was hired.

His first book was Teachers for the Prairie which he wrote with Henry Johnson. It was a history of teacher education focusing on the University of Illinois. In the following years he wrote about the national education reform discourse, the cultural role of Family Circle and other women’s periodicals, and the history of education research. At the time he retired in 2012, he was researching federal education policy in the Eisenhower administration. His longtime partner Theresa Richardson was a regular coauthor with him for the past two decades. I coauthored one research note with him in 1999 on the history of metaphors for schools as organizations.

As someone who both valued the local role of USF and also knew its institutional marginalization, he saw a keen value in almost any gathering of likeminded souls, especially in places marginalized by more advantaged universities. He was a regular at the Southern History of Education Society, the Southeast Philosophy of Education Society, and the Midwest History of Education Society, as well as the History of Education Society and the International Standing Conference for the History of Education.

Being a scholar at a marginalized public university was one public side of him. Longtime friend Howard Johnston and fellow USF professor emeritus wrote about his identification with first-generation college students:

Professor Erwin V. Johanningmeier had a special interest in students who were the first in their families to attend college, and with good reason. Growing up in a working class family in St. Louis, Erv thought that he “had no business being in college.” At least he that’s what he thought until he got there, and then he realized it was exactly where he belonged – and where he would remain as a student, professor, and scholar for six decades.

Education was respected in Erv’s family, but higher education was neither well understood nor seen as being within the reach of people of modest means. Even though he was a good student, when he reached sixteen years of age he was asked rather nonchalantly by neighbors, some family members, and even a school counselor if he intended to finish high school or go to work. In the middle of the 20th Century, leaving school for a job was the norm for many working-class children.

Erv already had a pretty good job at the neighborhood Kroger supermarket while he was in high school. Indeed, while still in school he was tapped to help display and sell a new product line that no one in the store knew much about — frozen food. Ironically, it was a product for which Erv harbored a deep distrust for the rest of his life. But in some respects, frozen food changed his life. The store manager said that Erv probably had a good future with the company, but for store management positions they hired only high school graduates. That and an intense curiosity about academic topics convinced Erv to stay in school and graduate.

His high school performance was so good that he received scholarships to one of America’s premier liberal arts schools: Washington University in St. Louis. His academic record there, even while continuing to work at Kroger, was exemplary. Leaving frozen food behind, Erv soon earned a Master’s degree in history from Washington University and a Ph. D. in the history of education at the University of Illinois. Except for a brief stint as a 9th grade teacher, Erv spent the rest of his life in the university – first at Illinois, then at Adelphi in New York, and finally at USF.

Professor Johanningmeier’s legacy is to make sure that other kids with curiosity, intellectual promise, and motivation to learn are able to attend a world-class university. As his own life illustrates, it doesn’t matter so much where you are coming from, only where you are going.

When I started at USF, the vast majority of undergraduates in the College of Education were transfer students from community colleges, first-generation-in-college students like Johanningmeier, and he made a point of telling junior colleagues how much the college’s value was in providing that opportunity, and we should not confuse our students’ sometimes-checkered high school experiences with incapacity.

When Johanningmeier and Wayne Urban were hired as assistant professors at the University of South Florida in 1968, USF was an entirely undergraduate university, about a decade old, with an emphasis on teaching. Urban left a year later for Georgia State University, and Johanningmeier stayed at USF-Tampa for more than 40 years. For a long time, he was one of the few research-oriented faculty in the college of education, being consistently productive while teaching over the years at five of USF’s three campuses.2

He repeatedly told younger colleagues of what Tampa was like his first few years: two-lane roads that were now eight lanes, a feeling of great accomplishment when more department stores came so he didn’t have to go to a major city (outside Florida) for a good shirt, and the visual arts scene he valued. And baseball: As a child growing up in St. Louis during and after World War II, Johanningmeier was one of the few stalwart fans of the Browns baseball team, often going to Sportsman’s Park when there were only a few thousand attending.3 Tampa was the starting place for many major-leaguers, but it had been neglected for decades by Major League Baseball’s expansion except for spring training. He became a fan of the Tampa Bay Rays when they started playing in the late 1990s and started friendships with several colleagues in the Tropicana Field stands.

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  1. In a span of about five years, he directly or indirectly was responsible for the hiring of six historians of education at USF. []
  2. USF used to have campuses in Ft. Myers and Lakeland. The tenured Ft. Myers campus faculty became grandfathered (if they wished) into the new Florida Gulf Coast University in the late 1990s, but for the majority of his career Erv would regularly assign himself to teach on the smaller campuses, including in Ft. Myers, at first using a small airplane USF owned for a few years for faculty who traveled from Tampa to Ft Myers, and then driving hours between Tampa and the distant campus. []
  3. Growing up, he also went on the Sundays when owner Bill Veeck pulled his stunts to increase attendance, and he was one of the 18,369 fans on August 19, 1951, when three-foot, seven-inch Eddie Gaedel pinch-hit in the bottom of the first inning. []