As one of the longest serving Virginia Tech employees, Jane Johnston has no shortage of stories to tell.
At the age of 17, Johnston started at Virginia Tech in 1955 after graduating from a small high school in Craig County. She was hired as the department head secretary in the aeronautical engineering department by Robert Truitt, the department head at the time. She worked full-time until 1965, typing tests, quizzes, exams, class tickets, student schedules, and theses for students.
“We had a manual typewriter and a hand-cranked copy machine,” Johnston said. “I probably typed over 100 multiple-page theses for students and even typed up some of the textbooks for the department.”
After she moved from Blacksburg to New Castle in Craig County after 1965, Johnston started working part-time in the department in her current position as a program support technician. She works a few days a week in the department, maintaining student records, performing graduation analyses, and advising undergraduate students.
Over the years, Johnston has witnessed several historical events in the university, including Virginia Tech becoming the first traditionally white southern school to graduate an African-American student in 1958, Charles Yates, who later became a faculty member in the Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering.
She has experienced changes, such as the school transition from a small Corp of Cadets institution to a more diversified university. As the longest serving employee in aerospace and ocean engineering, she has worked with more than eight different department heads and has seen the department change its name several times.
However, there are some things that have not changed.
“I have worked in the same department and in the same building for 62 years,” Johnston said. “My offices have changed, but I have found my home in Randolph Hall my entire time here.”
Love and respect from students and coworkers
Another aspect that has not changed is Johnston’s passion for helping students and coworkers and the respect and appreciation they feel towards her. Throughout the years, Johnston has helped hundreds of students organize their academic schedules in order to graduate on time. She has also served as a liaison between the professors and students to help communication flow more smoothly.
“To this day, she personally checks with great care the records of every graduating student to ensure no requirements are overlooked, so that students who plan to graduate do graduate,” said Robert (Bob) Canfield, professor and assistant department head for academic affairs.
She proved to be a vital asset to many aerospace students throughout the years, including William Grossmann, from the Class of 1958.
“None of us (students) had time to do anything but attend class, study, and work on lengthy homework assignments,” said Grossmann. “She was the person we communicated with to find out about schedules or any other activity we needed to know about. Over the years, I relied on Jane to jog my memory about events when I was on campus. Jane also served as an interface between students and the faculty on multiple occasions.”
Johnston’s amiable and helpful disposition have made her a favorite “go-to” person for students and faculty alike.
“The days she works are always brighter ones for everyone in the office,” said Canfield. "Jane Johnston has been at the heart of aerospace and ocean engineering since its inception. It is quite amazing that she has been a part of our students’ lives for six decades.”
“I cannot imagine Virginia Tech without Jane,” Grossmann said. “She has been such an important part of so many students’ lives in ways that I am sure they don’t even realize.”
Passion for history
One of Johnston’s passions is history and tradition, which has carried over into her work. In 2004, Johnston co-authored an article with previous department head Bob Walters, which reviewed the history of the aerospace engineering department. This article is now included as a chapter in the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics book, “Aerospace Engineering During the First Century of Flight.”
“(Johnston) is a wealth of knowledge about the history of the department,” said former Virginia Tech professor and department head Chris Hall. “When I was department head, I would frequently have alumni drop in. After the alum had departed, Jane would come by my office and always know the name and class of the former student.”
Jim Marchman, professor emeritus for the department, agreed.
“Jane really cared about our students and continued to care about them after they graduated, keeping up with their careers and families,” Marchman said. “You could be certain when a former student visited, Jane would be the first to want to see them and share with them her recollections of all that happened when they were students at Tech.”
Beyond the workday
Johnston’s passion for history goes beyond the department and her professional work. She is also a genealogist, historian, founding member, and a director for the Craig County Historical Society.
“As founding members, we wanted to preserve the history of Craig County, which had never been done before,” Johnston said.
This group is tremendously active in the community and sponsors an annual fall festival in the county, which features more than 100 vendors offering crafts, activities, food, and historical exhibits. The society has also restored two log cabins and the Old Brick Hotel, a historical landmark in the county. They host an annual Christmas dinner in the hotel, which is decorated by the New Castle Garden Club, of which Johnston is a member.
Johnston has co-compiled three books on Craig County and the Civil War. She regularly creates booklets, titled “In and Around Craig County,” which are about different routes around Craig County, including a full genealogy of the families that lived on those routes.
As well as being a part of multiple community groups, Johnston plays the piano at her small country church, Chestnut Grove Church.
Johnston was recognized for her outstanding 62 years of service to Virginia Tech during the 2017 Service Recognition Program on June 1.
Written by Mackenzie Nicely