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Dallas civic leader and SMU alumna and benefactor Jeanne Roach Johnson ’54 dies

The private investor was a major donor to business and music programs at SMU

Jeanne Roach Johnson
Jeanne Johnson with Dean Sam Holland and Meadows student Edward Fretheim.

Dallas investor and civic leader Jeanne Roach Johnson ’54, a major SMU benefactor whose gifts served students ranging from future international recording artists to women in business, has died. She was 84.

A memorial is scheduled for 2 p.m., June 21, at Highland Park Presbyterian Church, in Dallas. A reception will immediately follow.

“Jeanne Roach Johnson was a proud alumna and a beloved member of our University family,” said SMU President R. Gerald Turner. “Her generosity, business sense and love for music guided her transformative support for SMU arts programs. We are grateful for her leadership and will miss her as a cornerstone of our community.”

Mrs. Johnson was the first donor to SMU’s National Center for Arts Research (NCAR), whose mission is to provide evidence-based insight into the health of U.S. arts and cultural organizations. A lifelong music lover, she also established funds and initiatives for the piano programs in Meadows School of the Arts. The Jeanne Johnson Piano Guest Artists Endowment Fund provides opportunities for students to learn from visiting national and international pianists. The Jeanne Johnson Piano Program Special Initiatives Fund allows the division to invest in priorities that will have the greatest impact on the piano program's quality; the annual Jeanne Roach Johnson Piano Recital was established in appreciation of the gift and showcases outstanding students and alumni from the piano program.

Her support for the Jeanne Roach Johnson Music Practice Room Complex made possible the purchase of new, concert-quality pianos, additional maintenance for Meadows’ existing pianos, as well as a renovated space where artists such as internationally renowned Alessio Bax practice. Her gifts also supported the Jeanne R. Johnson Meadows Scholars program and the Piano Faculty Recruitment Fund.

Elsewhere at SMU, she supported the Fondren Library renovation and established the Johnson Women in Business Scholarship in the Cox School of Business to support future business leaders. The scholarship is available to women M.B.A. students with proven leadership skills, strong academic records, and dedication to success.

“No individual has done more in the modern era to support the music programs at SMU than Jeanne Johnson,” said Meadows School of the Arts Dean Sam Holland. “Her gifts support the piano program, NCAR, Meadows Scholars, faculty positions and renovated practice facilities. I doubt there’s a music student at SMU who has not benefited from her generosity, whether they know it or not. Jeanne was a dear friend and she will be greatly missed.”

Bonnie Jeanne Roach was born in Dallas on Nov. 24, 1932, and was valedictorian at Highland Park High School. A gifted music student from early childhood, her mother invested in a grand piano hoping her daughter would attend the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

Instead she received an SMU scholarship, which she used to earn her Bachelor of Business Administration degree in marketing in 1954 from what is now the Cox School of Business. While an SMU student, she was a University Scholar, as well as secretary of Phi Chi Theta business fraternity and the Student Marketing Club. In addition, she served as vice president of Gamma Alpha Chi sorority and was a member of the Westminster Student Fellowship.

After graduation, she worked for fellow SMU alumni Robert ’33 and Charles Cullum ’36, owners of the Tom Thumb grocery chain. “I wanted to get a degree, go to work and start making a living, and that’s what I did,” she said in a 2012 interview.

When Mrs. Johnson joined the firm, the Cullum brothers operated 20 stores. She helped navigate the days after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, when Bob Cullum, then president of the Dallas Chamber, received a flood of hate mail aimed at the city’s perceived role in the crime. She continued to work with the Cullums as they built the Tom Thumb chain into a regional force with locations throughout the Southwest.

She left the business world after marrying Dallas oil executive Murray Sherrill Johnson. They were active members of Highland Park Presbyterian Church. The Schoenstein Organ in its Wynne Chapel was a gift from Mr. Johnson’s estate. In addition, the church’s theologian-in-residence program was established through the Murray and Jeanne Johnson Theologian-in-Residence Institute fund. At the University of Texas at Austin, the Murray S. Johnson Memorial Conference, sponsored by UT’s economics department, and the Murray S. Johnson Chair in Economics are both named in memory of Mrs. Johnson’s late husband, who was an alumnus of the university.

At SMU, Mrs. Johnson’s service included the Executive Board of Meadows School of the Arts and the Texas Committee of The Campaign for SMU: A Time to Lead, as well as the Alumni Board and the Second Century Centennial Celebration Host committee. In addition, she was a member of the Dallas Hall Society, which recognizes donors who have made planned gifts to SMU as a beneficiary of their estates. In 2013, she received the University’s Distinguished Alumni Award, the highest honor SMU can bestow upon its graduates, recognizing extraordinary achievement, outstanding character and good citizenship.

In the community, Mrs. Johnson was a member of planned-gift societies for the American Guild of Organists (the Clarence Dickenson Society) and Children’s Medical Center-Dallas (The Bradford Society). She also served as an advisory governor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, a director of the Dallas Symphony Foundation and the Greater Dallas Youth Orchestra Inc., an elder at Highland Park Presbyterian Church and on the Board of Distinguished Advisors of the Dallas Arboretum. Through the Jeanne R. Johnson Foundation, she also supported the Arboretum’s two-acre kitchen garden, A Tasteful Place, scheduled to open in fall 2017.

Mrs. Johnson was preceded in death by her husband, Murray Sherrill Johnson, who died in 1989.

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