Texas Tech University

A Lifetime of Service: Eileen Johnson

Amanda Castro-Crist

April 12, 2018

(VIDEO) Eileen Johnson, director of the Lubbock Lake Landmark, has spent the past 45 years working to document and preserve millions of years of local natural history.

When Eileen Johnson came to Texas Tech University in 1972 as a biological sciences doctoral student, she had no idea she would spend the majority of her life on the South Plains. After completing her doctorate, she went on to become director of the internationally recognized archeological site, the Lubbock Lake Landmark, part of the Museum of Texas Tech University.

Since then, Johnson has been named a Paul Whitfield Horn Professor, is curator of anthropology and director of academic and curatorial programs at the museum, and is chairwoman of Master of Arts in Heritage and Museum Sciences program.

This year, she celebrates 45 years with Texas Tech.  

Can you describe some of the things you've done at Texas Tech?

“As director of Lubbock Lake Landmark, I oversee all operations. We are a public facility that is open year-round. We have an interpretative center and a research center, in total over 300 acres. We have one of the most extensive records of past natural history in this region, dating back at least 2.6 million years. The cultural record here goes back at least 11,500 to 12,000 years and is a fairly complete record of the entire time people have been here.  We live out here in the summer time, we work out here and our excavations are here. It's a repository of very deep history and the heritage of this region.

“I also am curator of anthropology and the director of academic and curatorial programs at the Museum of Texas Tech, and a Horn professor. I am chairwoman of the heritage and museum science programs. This is something I've seen across the campus – you keep adding titles, but you don't really give any up. I never wanted to give up the directorship at the Landmark or even the curatorship. Those are what keep me going.”

Did you ever imagine being at Texas Tech this long?

“In 1972, I was a doctoral student in biological sciences doing dissertation work. That first year, I thought, ‘This is a three-year project. I'll get my dissertation done and leave.' By the third year, though, I knew I was going to be here a lot longer, because we knew so much more and the perception of what the Landmark was back in the 1960s and 1970s was so different and constrained. I've been here forever, 45 years, and we've barely scratched the surface. The record here is just phenomenal.”

What's the secret to maintaining a career for so long? Any advice for someone who is just starting their career at Texas Tech?

“Persistence, and in some respect, singlemindedness. My career is very eclectic, but I'm focused on the career, on the research and on being a museum professional. I really haven't been told no when I've wanted to do something, but I also don't necessarily take no for a final answer. Again that's that persistence, or maybe stubbornness. There are a lot of things going on, there are lots of ways to grow in one's career and also to grow with the university. I've had opportunities here that my cohorts in others places simply have not. They're always amazed at that sort of thing.

“Young people, if they can recognize that, can have a really good career. They have a lot of opportunity, and they need to think broadly and widely. It's OK to specialize, but don't miss those opportunities that can lead you in other directions, because Texas Tech is full of opportunities, and it's very good for that. It nurtures you in that respect, it nurtures everyone who realizes and wants to take advantage of that.”

What kind of changes have you seen during your time at Texas Tech?

“The university has changed a lot over the time I've been here. When I first came here, there was a great deal of talk about wanting to be a research university and the transition from being Texas Technological College to Texas Tech University. They had just made that name change two or three years before I came, and it took a long time to move out of the old mold into the new. Now there's not just discussion, there's actual movement, there are good plans in place, there is good commitment and we already are, in various areas, recognized as a national research university.

“When I was a graduate student, it was not unusual for me to be the only woman in the class or even out in the field. At that time, I knew of only two women who were running field crews and doing field work. I spent a great deal of time with both of those women in terms of them mentoring and encouraging me. But I have never really looked at my career or what I was doing in those kinds of terms. Nobody ever told me that a woman couldn't do these things, or if I was told that, I said, ‘Well that's not true. I'm perfectly capable of doing this,' so I just went out and did it. I think that's a perfect example of the opportunity here at Texas Tech – nobody told me I could not do field work. I was treated like anyone else, and it was more on your abilities, competency and your persistence. As long as I was publishing and bringing in grants and teaching and mentoring students, things moved along.

“But it is very different now, and in courses where I was the only female, women now dominate. For heritage and museum science, we have a greater percentage of women in our courses, and now it actually is men who are underrepresented, so it has really flipped in that respect. My field crews, nowadays, it's not unusual to have a field crew that's all women.

“To me, it doesn't matter, and I have trained and educated my people that it doesn't matter.”

What have you enjoyed the most about being a Red Raider?

“The variety and how it reflects how eclectic I am, but also the two areas of my profession. I am a diehard researcher. My Horn professorship reflects that. But I'm also a museum professional, so I combine those two. My feet are in both camps. You have the freedom here at the university to be that eclectic and to function in all those different areas.”

Do you have a favorite Texas Tech memory or tradition?

“One of them is when we broke ground and opened up our current facilities. At that groundbreaking ceremony, Dr. Curry Holden was there. Curry was the first director of the Museum of Texas Tech and he is credited with the discovery of the Landmark. His vision for the Landmark and how to protect it is still as viable today as it was in 1936, so it was really wonderful to have him at that ceremony. This was something he had envisioned back in the 1930s and it took a while to develop, but here it was. It's his vision that is carrying us through to today.”

What does being a Red Raider mean to you?

“Texas Tech is on the verge, and we're going to get there. From my perspective, it is really important that we now are national and international players. That is still being recognized throughout the country, but we have positioned ourselves in that respect, and that's another thing young faculty and researchers should keep in mind. You have the opportunity to contribute to that, and it's exciting, in that respect, to be at the university. I understand how all the different things that Texas Tech does play into that, and not everybody is a fan of everything, but there is a great deal that the university has to offer that should make the current faculty, staff and students, as well as the alumni, really proud of the university.”

What are your plans for the future?

“As long as there are challenges and as long as there is discovery, excitement and student involvement, I'm not ready to retire. I'm doing what I love to do, and there is still so much more to do. I have some very good people working for and with me, and we just keep on as long as we can, as long as the resources and my health hold out, as long as there are research questions, and there are. I'm still working with some of the research questions we formulated in the 1970s, but that has led to others, and it's a process of discovery.”

Is there anything else you'd like to say?

“All of our public programming here at the Landmark is based on our research efforts and translating that to the public and involving the community in what we do. People as young as 13 can join us in the lab in the summertime and help us out with the research. At 15, they can actually come out into the field. There's no upper age – we've had people in their 80s and 90s come and help out in the field.

“It's a sharing relationship because the information goes back and forth, it isn't just a one-way avenue. Besides the Landmark and the region, we also work with some really terrific landowners, and you just never know what is just right around the corner. When you get that kind of connection, it's so exciting.”