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In the Spotlight: Jeanne Johnson

Music an Integral Part of Johnson's Life

By Mary Guthrie

Jeanne Johnson has had a lifelong love affair with music, beginning with piano lessons when she was a little girl. An adept student, she studied hard and soon could play anything she set her mind to. Her mother invested in a grand piano and had great aspirations for her daughter to attend the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and pursue a life of music and performing.

But Johnson had other ideas. Valedictorian of her class at Highland Park High School, she was offered a scholarship to SMU.

“I wanted to get a degree, go to work and start making a living, and that’s what I did,” says Johnson.

She graduated from SMU in 1954 with a Bachelor of Business Administration in marketing, and for several years worked as secretary to SMU alumni Robert ’33 and Charles Cullum ’36, owners of the Tom Thumb grocery store empire.

When Johnson joined the firm, the Cullum brothers operated 20 stores and were deeply involved in Dallas civic leadership. It was an exciting and tumultuous time; she helped them navigate the days after the Kennedy assassination, when Bob Cullum, then president of the Dallas Chamber, was at the receiving end of a flood of hate mail. Over the years, she worked tirelessly with the Cullums as they built their company, which eventually bloomed across the Southwest. Throughout it all, she attended concerts and unwound to the magic and swells of classical music.

She eventually left the corporate world and married oil executive Murray Sherrill Johnson. Together, they traveled the world, always taking time to include classical music concerts along the way. Yet at home, they never had a piano of their own.

“My husband offered to buy me a grand piano,” she says. “I said no, just give me a good machine that I can play my music on, and that’s what he did.”

After her beloved Murray died in 1989, she turned her love of music into leadership positions at area arts organizations, serving on boards and fund-raising committees for SMU Meadows School of the Arts, the Dallas Symphony and other groups. For Meadows, she made possible the purchase of new, concert-quality pianos, additional piano maintenance for the 110 pianos in its inventory, renovation of the music practice rooms and funding for other piano initiatives, including bringing accomplished guest artists to the campus.

Johnson, especially intent on nurturing budding young piano artists, sponsors several Meadows Scholars scholarships. In addition, she and her friend and fellow arts champion Janet Kafka, Honorary Consul of Spain in Dallas, have established the Joaquín Achúcarro Foundation, named after SMU Meadows Professor of Piano and Joel Estes Tate Chair Joaquín Achúcarro. One of the young artists helped by the Foundation is pianist Alessio Bax, now on the faculty of SMU Meadows.

“Alessio Bax is our concert pianist of tomorrow,” says Johnson. “There is no limit to where he is going.”

Johnson is keen on maintaining and building a solid future for classical music and the arts community, not just in Dallas but across the U.S. In that spirit, she was the first donor for a new, ambitious national center providing arts research to managers.

The plan for the center, to be headquartered at SMU, is to explore and analyze issues of declining arts participation and the fiscal health of arts organizations in the U.S., with the goal of finding ways to improve both. To accomplish this mission, SMU would combine and examine data from national sources including the Cultural Data Project, operated by The Pew Charitable Trusts; the Census Bureau; and a possible independent firm that provides patron data from more than 25 million households in the U.S..

“No one is doing combined analysis on arts management or arts consumerism on a national level,” says Johnson. “With the data gathered and parsed by SMU, arts leadership could have the information on trends and practices to help them build audiences and excitement about the arts.”

Throughout her life, Johnson has thoroughly appreciated music played by talented artists. She wants the beauty of music to be fostered and shared for many years to come.

“A key part of life is doing something and enjoying something,” she says. “Music is an integral part of my life.”

To find out how you can help Meadows compete for top scholars like Jeanne R. Johnson Scholar Edward Fretheim (B.M. Double Bass Performance, ’13), pictured at right with Jeanne Johnson and Sam Holland, director of the Division of Music, visit

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