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Grateful for the Opportunity, 1898 Alumnus Gave Back

The life story of John G. Johannesen, Class of 1898, who was born in the little town of Grimstad, Norway, in 1881 and orphaned in Baltimore at the age of nine, reads like a novel. Well-documented in a comprehensive 31-page 80th birthday tribute entitled “This is Your Life—John J.” by Janet Gibbs, it is a tale of drama, difficulty, and devotion to the institutions that played a critical role in his upbringing.

Johannesen immigrated to Baltimore with his parents and two younger brothers in 1890 after his father, a ship captain, accepted a job with a local steamship company. Tragically, on his last voyage, Captain Johannesen and his crew were lost at sea, and soon after, his wife succumbed to grief. With no family to take them in, John and his brothers were sent to live at the General German Orphan Asylum on Aisquith Street.

Several years later, Johannesen was encouraged to take McDonogh’s entrance exam. Based on his academic record and financial need, he was awarded a one-year, renewable scholarship and became student #611. In his first year, Johannesen, who primarily spoke both Norwegian and German, was awarded a copy of Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, given annually to the student who showed the greatest improvement in English.

Always one of the top 10 students in his class, a biographical sketch from McDonogh’s Alumni Association notes that Johannesen was not a “grind.” Described as a Viking, with the “blood of Norse Sea Kings,” he was a good swimmer and played center on the varsity football team. He introduced skiing to McDonogh and even made his own skis from wood that he found on campus. In addition to his studies and traditional chores, he served as the school barber, and he earned spending money by collecting walnuts and trapping and selling rabbits and muskrats that were “prepared in the school kitchen for good eating!”

After his graduation, then called “honorable discharge,” from McDonogh on June 6, 1898, Johannesen became a stenographer for an oyster and fruit packing company, and later for the Pearl Hominy Company. In 1904, the day after his wedding, the Great Baltimore Fire broke out destroying the company and eliminating his job. Using his connections, he landed a position as a clerk for the Southern Electric Company. Tragedy struck again when his wife died after giving birth to a daughter, who also did not survive (He later remarried and raised three children.). Johannesen’s career in the electric industry took off, and upon his retirement in 1946, he was Vice President of the New York and Newark Districts of the General Electric Supply Corporation. All the while, Johannesen remained in close contact with the two institutions that were his salvation. His gratitude for the security, care, and guidance he received at the orphanage and McDonogh molded him into a man of character and inspired him to do the same for others.

He served the General German Orphan’s Home (renamed in 1924, and later named The Children’s Home) in various capacities for more than 58 years as Director, Chairman of the Board, and President for multiple terms, including, at the time of his death in 1962. “To it he gave the last full measure of devotion,” states a postscript to “This is Your Life—John J.”

Johannesen’s loyalty to McDonogh is documented in a series of scrapbook clippings and copies of correspondence with Headmasters Duncan Campbell Lyle and Robert “Bob” Lamborn ’35. Keenly aware of the importance of an endowment to help students like himself, he encouraged others to support the school. According to one clipping about McDonogh’s Alumni Day exercises on July 4, 1919, where he served as the orator of the day, “His splendid tribute to McDonogh, to her founder, and to the men who have guided the work of the school since its doors were opened 46 years ago, fell on sympathetic ears. His acknowledgment of what McDonogh had meant to him and his earnest plea for a larger endowment for the school made a profound impression.”

Forty years later, Johannesen was still fundraising for McDonogh as an active member of a fledgling group that initiated the Annual Giving Fund. In 1961, friends in the Alumni Association noted, “His counsel, his active participation in fundraising, and his personal contributions were instrumental in forming a group that now includes some 400 McDonogh alumni who, during the past year, contributed more than $20,000 to the School’s advancement.”

Speaking at Johannesen’s memorial service the following year, Lamborn recalled meeting him as a boy and being impressed by his “bigness.” He said, “Big hand. Big grip. Big smile. Big voice. Waves of strength and goodwill and interest and support rolled out from him at that first meeting and at every other meeting I had with him through many years. He was strong in an era that demanded strength. Our institutions—The Home and The School—have profited from that strength—so have we as individuals.”

Lamborn’s words were echoed by Gibbs, who wrote, “In short, it is safe to say that every life that has been touched by this man’s influence has become better because of it.”

Published in the summer 2019 issue of McDonogh Magazine.