Ben F. Johnson III
A Leader’s Legacy
Humility. Fairness. Insight. Wisdom. These are the words people use most often to describe Ben F. Johnson III ’61, who retired in 2015 after leading Woodward Academy as chairman of the Governing Board for more than three decades.
“Ben Johnson shaped Woodward Academy more profoundly than any other individual apart from the school’s founders,” said President Stuart Gulley, upon Mr. Johnson’s retirement. “Since 1982, he has listened to the challenges and struggles of the Academy’s presidents and provided sound counsel. My predecessors and I found in Mr. Johnson an insightful and discerning leader.”
As chairman of the Governing Board for 33 years, Mr. Johnson’s wise guidance truly made Woodward what it is today. Although known for deflecting credit to the school’s senior administrators and faculty, he was an ever-present force behind the scenes, carrying the school through trials and triumphs.
Mr. Johnson’s relationship with the school began when he enrolled at what was then known as Georgia Military Academy as an eighth grader. By the time he graduated in 1961, he had served as senior class president, band captain, and editor of the yearbook. Even then, according to his classmates, his unusual maturity and leadership ability convinced them he would become a person of great accomplishment.
His classmates were right. Mr. Johnson graduated magna cum laude from Emory University and earned his J.D. degree at Harvard Law School. After law school, he returned to Atlanta to become a successful litigator and managing partner at Alston & Bird. In 2010, The American Lawyer honored Mr. Johnson with its Law Firm Distinguished Leader Award. Emory University awarded him a Doctor of Laws degree in 2014.
Mr. Johnson was a young man, still in his 30s, when he was asked to become Woodward’s board chairman in 1975. During his tenure on the board, he served on four presidential search committees and played an important role in securing the school’s future by raising funds for capital improvements and endowment.
Mr. Johnson never wavered in the face of difficult decisions and circumstances. His support was critical to the 2012 approval of the school’s groundbreaking policy establishing random drug-testing for high school students, employees, and Governing Board members. His leadership made Woodward among the first educational institutions to extend benefits to domestic partners of gay and lesbian employees. With a strong sense of fairness and equality, he was for many years the guiding spirit behind Woodward’s great diversity, shaping the school’s character profoundly by welcoming every religious, ethnic, and economic group into the community.
Mr. Johnson believes that Woodward graduates are going out into the world every year to make it a better place. He believes that intellectual humility creates strong leadership. He also believes in the value of change—and that it is important to know when it’s time to step back from leadership.
B.A. - magnum cum laude, Emory University 1965