Alumni Spotlight (Paul Johnson ’86)

Alumni Profile: Paul Johnson – AAE ‘86

I am honored to share a few words with Purdue rowers, coxswains and alumni this month.  I promise to keep it short!

Growing up in Indianapolis, I’d always been fascinated with airplanes and cars, so getting a job at Boeing in Seattle after graduating from Purdue in 1986 with an aeronautical engineering degree was a dream come true.  In the ‘90’s I returned to the Midwest and got an MBA from the University of Michigan and have worked in the auto industry ever since – first with General Motors for many years and more recently as president of International Brake Industries.  My wife, Karen, and I live in Detroit and have three wonderful children, one of whom graduated from Purdue just last year.

With our daughter on campus the last couple of years, I was able to reconnect with Coach Kucik and the crew.  It was during one of those visits that I learned the varsity women needed a new eight.  With the help of my fellow-‘80’s oarsman, Kevin Kiser, and many of the ‘80’s alumni women and men, we were able to raise enough to them buy a boat, culminating with a special dedication event last fall at Eagle Creek.

I rowed all four years while at Purdue and enjoyed every minute of it.  Well, maybe not the seat-racing…but the rest was great!  Our boathouse was an unheated pole barn next to Ft. Ouiatenon out on South River Road, past the airport and well downriver from today’s facilities.  As freshmen it was exciting to learn to row: learning to catch squarely, to set the boat, getting it to swing, recognizing riverbank landmarks, the satisfaction of finishing strong on a good practice, knowing you’d worked hard.

Old Burt lived next door on the Wabash and kept an eye out, which was a good thing for us.  We were four or five weeks into our first Fall, all novices and learning to row.  Our coxswain was also green when we pulled right over a mid-stream snag at full speed.  Stunned, I watched a tree stump aggressively administer a 20-foot gash right along the keel. Next thing we knew, we were submerged and floating down the Wabash and I clearly remember thinking “I wonder how often this happens?”  Fortunately, Burt was nearby with his 10hp Evinrude and after tossing a line to our now-swimming bow man, slowly towed us back to the docks.

I learned much during my years at Purdue.  Its classrooms, labs and professors prepared me well for a challenging and satisfying technical career.  But it was crew that taught me about life and how to lead.  To this day my role models are the people I rowed with back in the ‘80’s.  And my notion of leadership is a mix tape of the traits I saw in those young men and women – strength, dedication to purpose, empathy, honesty, humility, decisiveness… and the will to win.

As student rowers and coxswains, I believe you owe it to yourselves and your teammates to show up and work hard, improve your conditioning and skills and move the boats faster, every day.  And as alumni, we owe it to those student athletes to get them the resources they need – to help them realize success, and failure – so they’re prepared for an increasingly complicated world.

I wish all of Purdue’s crew team a safe Fall semester and hope you’re back on the Wabash soon.  These are challenging times, but I know from experience that among Purdue’s toughest people are those who can handle both academics and rowing.

And as a proud alumnus, I’ll be there to help you all along! 

Paul Johnson

Class of ‘86