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Thursday, March 4, 2021

Western grieves sudden loss of professor

By Emily Stout

At the entrance of the computer science department, a table is set up in memory of James Lee Johnson, known to his colleagues as Jim, a professor who died unexpectedly in his Bellingham home on Wednesday, Feb. 14.

A condolence book sits on the table for students and faculty to share memories of Johnson, along with flowers and pictures.

Johnson had been with the computer science department since it was started in 1983, when he left the math department to join the new program. He specialized in algorithms.

Table set up for Jm Johnson. // Photo by Emily Stout

Mary Tully, the computer science department manager, said she set up the table and brought the book after students began asking how they could express their condolences to his family.

Johnson is survived by his loving wife of 20 years, Shelley; his children, Jessica and Jimmy; his sisters, Jill, Shirley and Midge; and his brother, Robert, according to his obituary.

Tully said the department is tight-knit and many students and faculty were close to Johnson. She expects to keep the table up until the end of the week, as she said people are still processing the news.

“This is a very sad time,” she said.

Alex Covington, a senior who was taking Johnson’s class this quarter, said the chair of the department, Perry Fizzano, visited the class on Wednesday to notify students. Later, an email was sent out explaining the situation.

“Everybody was shocked,” Covington said.

Aran Clauson, a computer science instructor, remembers Johnson fondly. Johnson taught Clauson as an undergraduate student and was his graduate adviser before he became a faculty member himself.

Clauson said Johnson embraced him as an equal when he became a faculty member and had a warm and funny personality, frequently sharing stories about his wife and kids.

“I never got the sense that there was a wall up between master and student,” Clauson said.

Clauson said they will have to hire a new faculty member by the beginning of next year and expressed that Johnson’s passing is a serious loss for the department.

“There’s a lot of knowledge that is now gone,” said Clauson.

Fizzano said he has taken over Johnson’s classes for the remainder of the quarter. The faculty is still sorting out how they will cover his classes for next quarter, he said.

A celebration of Johnson’s life will be held at 1 p.m. on March 8 at Westford Funeral Home. Memories can be shared with the family online.

The Counseling Center is available for students who are affected by Johnson’s passing. Visit their website for information on grief groups and other resources.

Western Counseling Center, 360-650-3164

Old Main 540

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