A grinning Seth Schulgen apologized for the manufactured story necessary to trick Tom Johnson to show up for a surprise party and the unveiling of the Thomas L. Johnson AGC Building to honor the retiring industry legend.
Nearly 100 people attended the Tom Johnson tribute dinner Jan. 3 at the Austin Headliner’s Club intended to cast a final spotlight on the longtime executive vice president for the Associated General Contractors of Texas. Johnson stepped aside from his day-to-day duties last fall after more than 50 years with the association.
The surprise dinner allowed industry leaders to toast Johnson with stories highlighting his contributions to the state’s highway construction industry and testimonials reflecting his reputation as a positive, unassuming leader always deflecting attention to AGC members.
“If Tom knew this party was in his behalf, he would have never, ever agreed,” Schulgen, the 2017 AGC president, told the audience. “I’m sorry …. But I had to lie to you (Tom).”
Both Tom and Kathy Johnson anticipated a quiet dinner with AGC leaders Chad Clark, Jeff Smith, Schulgen and their spouses. Instead, they were greeted by the larger gathering of close friends. Kathy Johnson reacted with shock while her husband responded with a look of curiosity.
Following the presentation of a Texas flag flown over the state Capitol and a gubernatorial proclamation honoring Johnson, Schulgen displayed a large bronze plaque that is now mounted outside of the Chapter Office’s main entrance. He then lifted the drape from an oversized photo showing the new “Thomas L. Johnson” AGC building. A formal ceremony commemorating the building name change will follow later this spring.
“I am overwhelmed and probably the most underserving recipient, but I want to thank you, and I accept your gracious gift,” Johnson told the audience, which included such past AGC presidents as Phil Parker, Gene Shull, Howard Pebley and Thomas Moore; state Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo; former Texas Transportation Chairman Ray Stoker and former Texas Supreme Court Justice Harriet O’Neill.
Johnson announced his retirement in September. “By God, we have to honor that man. How are we going to do that?” Tracy Schieffer, a past AGC president, asked, according to Schulgen.
Change the name of the State of Texas to the Tom Johnson State? “Not going to work,” Schulgen noted.
“Renaming I-35 all the way through Texas as the Tom Johnson Freeway? Tough to do; might be a struggle,” Schulgen again noted.
Okay….here’s an idea that works and will carry Tom Johnson’s legacy far into the distant future: Name the AGC Chapter headquarters for him. The audience gave Johnson one of several standing applauses.
Schulgen then read the inscription on the bronze plaque marking Johnson’s half-century of industry leadership and accurately describing him as a “confidant of governors, legislators and state officials.”
“He helped lead our unceasing efforts on behalf of a world-class highway system for Texas …. In recognition of his remarkable service, AGC of Texas is proud to name the Chapter headquarters the Thomas L. Johnson Building in honor of this industry leader, towering Texan and our great friend.”
Schulgen called Johnson “the most phenomenal man I have ever met” and conveyed the audience’s love and affection for him, adding: “We thank you for everything you have done - and not only for us but for the entire industry for over 50 years.”
Johnson spent his entire career emphasizing that AGC is a memberdriven organization, always shunning both credit and spotlight. Privately, a day after the tribute dinner, Johnson acknowledged that he appreciated the event even though humorously jabbing his friends while standing at the podium.
“Everybody in this room are friends – except those of you who didn’t bother to tell me about tonight, and I will have to question the friendships of each and every one of you,” he told the audience.
Focusing on the people in front of him, Johnson reminded that they, “not me, have built the greatest transportation system in the world. It certainly hasn’t been me. It’s been you ... And the industry is what it is because of you. I just happened to have been there as a servant of yours to carry out the wishes as you outlined to be done.”
But past AGC President Roger Albert poured cold water on Johnson’s modesty while delivering the first toast: “Bullshit! You convinced us that what you wanted to get done, that we would do it,” prompting audience laughter and applause. “You have been the ultimate puppetmaster for 50 years. You have manipulated us to do the right thing for so damn many years.”
Albert, who served as AGC president in 2012, mentioned Johnson suggested six years ago that AGC leaders think about his replacement considering his approaching retirement. Albert said he simply “ignored” Johnson’s hints. He complimented him for knowing “for a long time who your replacement was going to be and you have been grooming her for this job. I want to thank you for that. I have no fear at all that this association will move forward,” Albert said.
Kathy Johnson shows without a doubt that she was not “in” on the secret to surprise Tom Johnson at Headliner’s Club in January.
Clarisa and Rep. Drew Darby congratulate Tom as he enters the club.
President Chad Clark and Past President Jeff Smith hold up the dedication plaque that will be mounted in the Chapter Office.
Immediate Past President Seth Schulgen unveils a mock-up of the signage that will identify the Chapter Office as the Thomas L. Johnson Building.
Tom’s successor, Jennifer Woodard, closed out the evening. “Everything good I know professionally I learned from Tom Johnson. It will be my honor and privilege to go to work every day in the Thomas L. Johnson Building.”
AGC of America President Art Daniel lauded Tom for his service to the industry. “You have trained us. We wouldn’t be here otherwise,” he said.
Past President Roger Albert poured cold water on Tom’s modesty. “You have manipulated us to do the right thing for so damn many years,” he said.
Debbie Albert, widow of Jack Albert, who passed away shortly after the event, and Anne Weisman toasted Tom and led a rendition of “Happy Retirement to You.”
Bob Lanham, another past AGC of Texas president, shared an animated hunting story – one of several told during the night.
He described Johnson as “one of the humblest men I have ever met – one of the most insightful.”
Johnson grew up in Ysleta, a modest community in El Paso’s Lower Valley. Lanham marveled at Johnson’s uncanny ability to discern the details and dynamics of any situation. “It’s absolutely incredible,” he said, also crediting Johnson’s “graciousness; his self-effacing nature. To give credit to others before he would himself is a hallmark of sympathetic leadership.”
Top TxDOT leaders also attended the surprise dinner, including Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Bruce Bugg Jr., who called Johnson “an incredible force in bringing Texas transportation to what it is today.”
Bugg shared a conversation he had with Gov. Greg Abbott when the governor first called him with an offer to serve on the Texas Transportation Commission. “I got real quiet. ‘Governor, I really don’t know anything about transportation other than I get behind the wheel of my car and get stuck in traffic,’ and he said, ‘that’s all you need to know. There’s another thing. I want you to get to know the people at AGC because they will be your partners in doing what you need to get done for the people of the state of Texas.’
“It’s a tribute to you, Tom Johnson, because you have really built a helluva foundation, and we don’t know how to thank you for all that you have done for the people of the state of Texas,” Bugg told him.
Johnny Weisman, another past AGC president and industry leader, drew attention to the vast number of friends Johnson has accumulated during his life. And he highlighted one of Johnson’s enduring personality traits.
“Have you ever seen Tom be negative about anything? We can have the worst of conditions and guess what? Tom says, ‘Oh, that’s not any big deal; we’re going to do this, this and this and everything’s going to be great,’” Weisman said. “He’s shown us to be positive and, at the darkest hour, to look at a subject and see the positive part of it – not the negative part. But the biggest thing is that he’s been a great friend to us all.”
Johnson also earned the praises of national AGC President Art Daniel, another past AGC of Texas president. Daniel is the 7th Texan to serve as president of AGC of America, with Lanham expected to become No. 8 – “because of this man because he taught us,” Daniel said, pointing to Johnson.
“You have trained us. We wouldn’t be there otherwise,” Daniel said.
Debbie Albert and Anne Weisman then approached the podium with wine glasses in hand and tributes before leading the group in singing, “Happy Retirement.”
The program closed with the woman mentored by Johnson for 30 years and who has now followed in his footsteps as executive vice president. Jennifer Woodard learned during the dinner that she would be closing. She had no prepared remarks. Instead, she spoke from the heart.
“I am the luckiest person in the room because I got to work at his side every day for the last 30 plus years. Everything good I know professionally I learned from Tom Johnson. It will be my honor and privilege to go to work every day in the Thomas L. Johnson building,” she said.