Professor Spotlight: Ken Johnson

World Traveler, Geologist Emeritus, OLLI Instructor

Ken Johnson

By: Patrick Piscitelli, Program Coordinator

Ken Johnson has been involved with OLLI at OU since 1996 (then “Senior Adult Services”). His first lecture was Jerusalem: The City at the Center of the World.  The program and its members fascinated him so much that he made it a point to lead at least one course each year since.  Another aspect that adds to Johnson’s dynamic involvement with OLLI is his dual-role as a student and as an instructor. When Johnson isn’t at the front of the room, elucidating his research to students, he is the student, listening and learning new material with fellow members and friends.

What motivates you to lead OLLI courses?  

Ken: Most of the OLLI courses I’ve taught are based upon travels with my wife, Dorothea, and this is a good way to share those experiences with others at OU and in the Norman community. The research done to prepare each course keeps my mind active, and I’m always learning new and fascinating things.                                                                                                   

Which class has been your favorite to teach?  

Ken: Probably the Senior Seminar on Geologic Processes with Major Impacts on Earth History. Preparing it let me dig more deeply into such processes as plate tectonics, volcanism, earthquakes, tsunamis, glaciers, and icebergs and show how they have impacted various parts of the world, especially Oklahoma. The response to that course by participants was very positive, and clearly they considered it one of their favorites.

 What do you like most about OLLI at OU?  

Ken: Participants attend the courses because they WANT to, not because they HAVE to, and their enthusiasm is very rewarding. The response by, and interaction with, participants keeps me on my toes, and means I’ve really got to be prepared—it’s like me taking a final exam in every course. It’s true that “the best way to learn something is to teach it.” My talks contain many PowerPoint slides (and a bit of humor), and the talks and slides are geared toward the intelligent and interested layperson—ahem, the typical OLLI member!                                                                                                                                                    

How did you first become involved with OLLI?        

Ken: That was so long ago; I really can’t remember. I probably got an inter-departmental announcement requesting submittals to the “Mornings…” program, and, having just given a colloquium on the history of Jerusalem to staff members at the Oklahoma Geological Survey (OGS), I felt it would be an appropriate topic for a Mornings with the Professor lecture.                                                                                     

Your expertise is the geologic sciences. What about this subject interests you?

Ken: I grew up in New York City and never heard the word “geology” until I was 22 years old and enrolled in a geology course at Columbia University’s night school. Until that time, I had no career direction. The course was fascinating, and I then discovered that one could go to college and get a degree in a fun subject. I immediately headed west and ended up studying at OU and working at OGS. I have always been a “generalist” in the field of geology, working on virtually all phases of geologic research—except paleontology and petroleum exploration. Now, in retirement, one of my interests is to give OLLI participants, and others, an appreciation for geologic processes, how they impact our lives, and the historical and cultural development of interesting parts of the world.                                                                                                                                                      You and your wife travel all over the world – what are some of your favorite places? 

Ken: Most of our travels have been for the study of geology, natural resources, environmental problems and historical/cultural development of the areas visited. We’ve traveled to about 85 countries, and have been to all seven continents at least a couple of times. The top eight places, not necessarily in any order, are: Antarctica, Iceland, Malta, Chile, Easter Island, Galapagos Islands, New Zealand, and the Alaskan Inside Passage. I have offered, or will offer, courses on all of these places (and many more) in the OLLI program.               

You have been an integral part of the Oklahoma Geological Survey. What are some of the other roles you’ve played at OU?

Ken: I was a research geologist at OGS (1962–1999) and also associate director at OGS (1978–1999). My research was varied, including environmental geology, hazardous and radioactive waste disposal studies, metallic and nonmetallic mineral assessment, evaluation of potential dam sites, geology of caves and karst, and general geology of Oklahoma. Other activities included: visiting professor in Geology and Geological Engineering at OU (1972–1999); chair, Oklahoma Hazardous Waste Management Council (1981-1993); member, Environmental Advisory Board of the Chief, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (1992–1996); member, Editorial Board of the journal Environmental Earth Sciences (2000–2008); and director, Oklahoma Mining and Mineral Resources Research Institute (1978-1980). My research has resulted in more than 270 publications, and, since retiring, I have been an invited lecturer on 40 ocean cruises—from Antarctica to Alaska to Spitsbergen, and all places and seas in between (2004–2012). Needless to say, I enjoy travel and communicating with people.

Ken attempts to offer at least one OLLI course each year, but this spring he exceeds that personal goal by leading two Senior Seminars and two Mornings with the Professor, holding courses and lectures at both OLLI at OU locations – Norman and Oklahoma City.  His Norman courses include History of Britain: Prehistoric Times through 1066 AD and Polar Bears and Harp Seals: The Top Predators and Top “Cuties of Canada”.  The courses being offered at the OKC location are Geologic Processes with Major Impacts on Earth History and Panama Canal.  Ken’s desire for learning and knowledge makes him an integral part of the OLLI at OU program.  Like all of our members, Ken has a thirst for continual education and his courses certainly reflect that passion for lifelong learning.