End of an era: Tom Johnson Steps Down

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AGC Board Unanimously Promotes Jennifer Woodard

Tom Johnson Right

LEGENDARY TOM JOHNSON STEPPED ASIDE AS EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT OF AGC of Texas on Wednesday, September 6, after helping lead the association and the state’s highway construction industry for more than a half century.

In his typical self-effacing manner, Tom thanked AGC members during brief remarks to the Chapter Board of Directors.

“I have enjoyed every day working for you and I will enjoy every day as I work a little less for you but still as meaningful. It’s been a great run, and thank you,” he said, receiving standing applause.

Tom J White shirt
Tom offers support to Chairman
Johnny Weisman during a Highway
Funding Task Force meeting.

Chapter President Seth Schulgen (Williams Brothers) told Tom: “Thank you for your 50 years of support, for your 50 years of leadership and for your 50 years of being one of the most phenomenal men I have met in my entire life.”

The AGC Board of Directors elevated long-time staff member Jennifer Woodard to follow in Tom Johnson’s footsteps as executive vice president. Jennifer earned unanimous support from the board and from the Chapter’s Finance and Goals and Objectives Committees.

Tom and Wife
Tom and Kathy warm up the dance floor at the Johnson springtime celebration.

Tom, who grew up in Ysleta – a modest and underappreciated part of rural El Paso – will assist in the transition. He will stay in the Chapter office until Jan. 1 and then move to the AGC office in the Westgate Building where he will work on national AGC issues, assist the Texas chapter when requested and continue developing the AGC of Texas history book.

Tom arrived at AGC as an enthusiastic 29-year-old and found himself running the association’s day-to-day affairs two years later when his predecessor succumbed to cancer. He gained a national reputation as a leader in the highway construction industry.

ARTBA named Tom Johnson one of the “Top 100 Design & Construction Specialists of the 20th Century” a few years ago while recognizing the country’s best engineers, contractors, equipment manufacturers and academics. Tom was one of only four association executives included.

“Those will be some awfully big boots to fill,” Stephen E. Sandherr, CEO, AGC of America, said succinctly about Tom’s departure as the top executive of the 758-member Texas Chapter.

But Jennifer, who started working for AGC of Texas as a 16-year-old, expressed confidence about her ability to lead the Chapter – simply because of Tom Johnson.

“I’m ready, and I’m prepared because Mr. Johnson prepared me,” she told members. “I appreciate your vote of confidence and the trust you are placing in me. I take it very seriously. I have a legacy of excellence that I will not allow to be diminished in any way. I will do everything that I can to continue that.

“I can’t say enough about the person who’s been my mentor and my role model professionally and personally for a number of years. Thank you very much,” she told Tom.

Tom and Daughter
Tom and daughter Karen Rove share a delighted smile as the numbers for the Prop. 7 campaign come in.

Tracy Schieffer, who has been the only woman president in the Chapter’s history, celebrated Jennifer’s promotion to the corner office.

“I understand what it takes to climb the ladder in this organization, and you have earned it,” she said.

Tom revealed his retirement intentions during a Goals and Objectives Committee meeting (July 10).

“It’s probably a faulty assumption on my part that I won’t live forever, but it is conceivable that that won’t happen and you would bring somebody on. The last time we faced this decision was 47 years ago,” he told AGC of Texas leaders.

Committee Chair Dean Word III (Dean Word Co.) acknowledged, “We all know that Tom is not going to be here at our head table forever. We’re here stimulating some thoughtful discussion.”

Retirement talk started informally about five years ago.

“There’s probably something about being 75 that triggers that question, and rightfully so. Some people decide to retire at 60. Not everybody wants to work endlessly on except those that enjoy it and enjoy what they are doing,” Tom said in an interview.

But he’s not one to dwell on past glories.

Tom and Friend
Longtime friends Tom and Gen.
Tommy Franks (Ret.) at a reception
in the spring. The General donated
a one-of-a-kind Asprey shotgun
to the membership in the spirit of
that friendship. The Asprey was
auctioned off for over $90,000,
which went to the AGC of Texas
Scholarship Fund.

Jennifer Woodard
Jennifer Woodard graciously and gratefully accepts her election
as the new executive vice president, citing a “legacy of excellence
that [she] will not allow to be diminished in any way.”

“I’m not a [nostalgic] person,” he said. “We have come from borrowing money to make the payroll, which we did, to being on solid ground. We have our own building and a satellite office. We have a beautiful facility at the Westgate [Building].”

Before retiring, however, Tom wanted to ensure that:

** Texas established an adequate and reliable highway funding stream for the next 15 to 20 years. The combination of voter-approved Prop. 1 and Prop. 7 measures and ending diversions from the state highway fund could increase highway funding by $70 billion over the next 15 years.

** The Texas Department of Transportation went through a smooth and orderly sunset process, which happened earlier this year.

** The Texas Legislature did not retreat from the voter-approved measures to increase highway funding.

** The Chapter had a strong financial foundation.

“We had to borrow roughly $2.5 to $3 million from the Chapter to pass both the water issue and the highway funding issues. It was money well spent,” he said. “But it exhausted our Infrastructure Education Fund and took a strong hit on the Chapter reserves. That had to be built back up, and that meant the members were going to be asked to increase their participation in the Infrastructure Education Fund until all the money was paid back, and we had roughly a $3 million war chest to defend any possible diversion.”

Chairman Dean Word III
Goals and Objectives Committee
Chairman Dean Word, III, yields the floor
at a recent committee meeting as Tom
lays out his plans for the future.

Retirement seemed appropriate after helping members achieve their top priorities, he said.

“I don’t govern those changes. What governs those changes is where we are. And it doesn’t take Phi Beta Kappa to figure out that this is the perfect time to change staff and to move forward in a very positive manner with a very positive person,” Tom said.

Tom and Chairman Tryon Lewis
Tom and former Texas Transportation Commission
Chairman Tryon Lewis.

He often shares his story of arriving at 7 a.m. for his first day of work at AGC. Jim Richards, his predecessor, strolled in 30 minutes later.

“I said to him: ‘I didn’t realize you didn’t go to work until the middle of the day here.’”

“When Jim Richards was diagnosed with cancer, he was not surprised. His father had died 7 years younger than Jim was, and he felt he had cancer genes and was going to die. He believed that I should be his replacement, so he did everything in his power during his last 12 months of life to prepare me, endorse me and do whatever he could for me to get the job.”

He doesn’t remember or acknowledge any anxieties of taking over the job.

“I went to A&M; You don’t have anxieties,” he said.

Nor is he willing to elaborate on career highlights.

“The highlights are on that wall,” Tom said, pointing to photographs covering his career. “Where else do you get to be on a first-name basis with every governor – starting with Preston Smith - coming from Ysleta; I didn’t even know where the Capitol was.

Tom Spring Mountain
Tom at his Spring Mountain Ranch in
Valentine, Texas. Tom auctioned off an
Aoudad sheep hunt annually for the
Scholarship Gala, bringing in significant
money for the Scholarship Fund.

“Every day I’ve been here has been a big deal,” he said. “There’s never been a day that hasn’t been a big deal. And there’s never been a day that wasn’t good.”

His friend, retired 4-star Gen. Tommy Franks, says, “Tom Johnson has never had a bad day in his life.”

But Tom notes anyone can have a bad day. Laughing, he tells a story involving life-long friend and industry icon Doug Pitcock.

Doug Pitcock
Tom and longtime friend Doug Pitcock.
At the Chapter’s 90th Anniversary
Event, Doug introduced Tom by
acknowledging he requires “one
conversation (with Tom) per week” to
keep his outlook positive.

“When he’s down in the doldrums, things are terrible. Doug picks up the phone and calls,” and Tom will remind his friend, “Damn aren’t we lucky that that happened. How lucky can we be? What’s not to be optimistic about?”

In remarks during AGC of Texas’ 90th anniversary dinner a few years ago, Doug acknowledged that he requires “one conversation (with Tom) per week to keep my outlook positive.”

“Tom grew the Chapter. He grew … our relationship with TxDOT, our legislative activity and our leadership in highway construction industry nationwide” Doug said. “When he started, we had approximately 12 AGC Committees in the Chapter and a total of about 32-45 committee meetings per year. Today our Chapter has 50 Committees and Task Forces with a total of approximately 250-300 meetings per year or 5 or 6 meetings per week average.”

“His success is not only due to his knowledge, work ethic, personality, energy and ethical and moral standards, but his total commitment to being positive and not negative on any issue, on every effort whether it being as professional or personal life,” Doug said in those remarks.

Tom is both delighted and confident that Jennifer will continue to lead the member-driven association.

FM Young
Tom with Past President and Life Member F.M. Young

“She will take charge. Make no mistake,” he said. “She will be the executive vice president. I will move into the president’s office until the end of the year to help her with the transition. But she will be in charge of this chapter. I will be in the office next door just to be close, to help her with everything, to give her advice and to give her history. In January I will move over to the Westgate Building.”

Immediate AGC Past President Jeff Smith noted the magnitude of Tom’s retirement and staff leadership transition: “It only happens every 50 years.”

Old time pic
A young Tom and Kay Johnson pose with then-Texas Governor Dolph Briscoe

Old time pic 2
Tom and Jon Abrams, president of the Chapter in
1980 when Jon pushed for AGC to build its own offices
instead of renting space. The two were photographed
in Tom’s new corner office.

Current President Schulgen ensured member support for Jennifer and suggested she might stay in the job for the next 30 years – or, maybe, “51 at least.”

Everyone laughed.

“This is a huge honor,” Jennifer said. “I’m thrilled. I love AGC and I always have – since I was 16 years old when I walked through those doors.… You are the best Chapter in the nation and the best members in the nation, and I am honored and excited and ready to go to work.”

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