Thanksgiving Day Tragedy: Professor W. A. Johnson

Occasionally a museum visitor will mention an adored grandfather (or great-grandfather) and ask which of the Old Campus buildings were here in the 1930s?

It’s a good question. Binkley Chapel, the most visible campus landmark, was a 1940s addition that was finished by Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in the late 50s. A series of unsolved arson fires leveled the original Wait Hall and Wingate Memorial Hall in the mid-30s. Lea Laboratory (now SEBTS’s Broyhill Hall) and the Heck-Williams Library (now Denny Library) were there and still exist today.

Then there’s the haunting story of the William Amos Johnson Medical Building (now Adams Hall), home of the Wake Forest College School of Medicine from the time the building went up in 1933 until the Medical School relocated as the Bowman Gray School of Medicine at Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem in 1941. The Johnson Building then served the Biology department until the College also moved to Winston-Salem in 1956.

At the foot of North Main Street with one side facing out and the other turned toward campus, the Johnson Building was named for a beloved Wake Forest College professor killed in a Thanksgiving Day accident in 1927.

William Amos Johnson was just 25-years-old when he died.

A recent Wake Forest College graduate, he’d signed on as the College anatomy professor and–having been a brilliant athlete in his student days–also as the team football trainer. Johnson was traveling home from a Thanksgiving game in Asheville when the car he was riding in collided with another vehicle, the door flew open, and he was hurled headfirst onto the pavement. Rushed to the hospital in Rutherfordton, he never regained consciousness.

Because Johnson was so closely tied to Wake Forest College–as a student, alumnus, and faculty member–his memorial service at Wingate Hall was a town-wide event.

Colleagues offered tributes, a special issue of the Wake Forest Bulletin was published, and there was a poem composed in his honor by Edith Taylor Earnshaw, daughter of former WFC President Charles Taylor. It opened with this verse: He wrote his life upon a shining page. And then, before that page was ever turned–The ink scarce dry upon the final word–The chronicle was closed, the writer gone.

Five years later, in November 1932, Wake Forest College announced that the Johnson Family was donating $60,000 for a new, state-of-the-art facility to be named the William Amos Johnson Building. It was to be designed by famous Raleigh architect William Dietrick, who had been one of Johnson’s Wake Forest College classmates.

When Wake Forest College left for Winston-Salem in 1956, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary renovated the Johnson Building into classroom space. In 1982, they renamed it in honor of Theodore F. Adams (1898-1980), former Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Richmond, Virginia and one-time President of the Baptist World Alliance.

The story of William Amos Johnson, and the building that once bore his name, is now part of the history of Wake Forest–College, Town, and University–and fits well within the museum’s mission to preserve and share these bits of our past with all of you.

(Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the date the Medical School moved as 1956, the same year Wake Forest College relocated to Winston-Salem. In fact, the Medical School left for the Bowman Gray School of Medicine at Baptist Hospital in 1941.) 

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