Watson Finds Leadership Path at LeMoyne-Owen College

By Bill Dries

In more than 50 years as an educator and administrator, Johnnie B. Watson has applied for a job only once.


“The first professional job I applied for was my last,” said Watson, the president of LeMoyne-Owen College since 2006. “I applied for a job in 1959 when I was a senior here at the college. I was hired to teach in the Memphis City Schools system.”

And the next year a supervisor approached him about getting into management.

Watson’s career as an educator has earned him a reputation as a stabilizing force who not only knows education principles and trends but knows the nuts and bolts of running a school, a school system and a college campus.

In the case of LeMoyne-Owen College, Watson was sought as an interim leader and became a permanent choice for the top spot after he quickly stabilized its financial affairs.

Watson rose to deputy superintendent in the city school system before retiring in 1992. He returned in 2001 as interim superintendent and left when the three-year contract ended. “It was too stressful,” Watson said of the experience.

The same week he announced his departure he got a call from the chairman of the Rhodes College education department. He reported for work at Rhodes the next week as an important part of the college’s emphasis on teaching.

He left Rhodes in 2006 just as the board of his college alma mater was attempting to work through financial problems that threatened the accreditation of LeMoyne-Owen. The board approached Watson about being interim college president and Watson took on the challenge. As the school’s financial condition stabilized the board approached him about applying for the presidency on a permanent basis and he initially refused. The board had several finalists but approached Watson again and he agreed.

“I’m just having fun here. It’s not stressful at all,” Watson said from his office in the administration building, a building he knew well as student at LeMoyne-Owen in the 1950s.

Watson is the first president of LeMoyne-Owen who is a graduate of the school.

For him, the college was where he learned leadership as president of his fraternity and as a member of the Future Teachers of America chapter on campus. The faculty sponsor of the chapter would call Watson to prepare him for the day ahead, asking him to wear a certain suit and a certain tie.

“That pretty red tie was the only tie I had,” Watson said, adding the suit she reminded him to wear was also his only suit.

“She would go over my agenda with me on the telephone,” he said. “As a result, today I will not walk in a meeting without an agenda. That’s the kind of training I got on the campus of LeMoyne-Owen College.”

Watson’s office is open to students with the only requirement that they schedule a meeting. He greets students by name on a campus that has grown from just more than 500 students in 2006 to more than 1,000 today.

“If you see me three times during a day, you are going to speak to me each time,” he said of students he encounters.

Some of his style is modeled on Dr. Hollis Price, the president of LeMoyne-Owen when Watson was a student.

“He was warm. He was caring. People knew he was sincere,” Watson recalled. “The business office got frustrated with him because in those days, they didn’t have all the loan money and everything. If you got put out of class, it wasn’t embarrassing.”

Watson was among those students who missed a tuition payment and the head of the school’s business office came.

“One day she called for me out of class,” Watson said, adding that Price intervened saying Watson would pay when he could. “He had a folksy style about him.”

It is that kind of individual attention that Watson references when he says the college remains true to its mission as the city’s only historically black college.

The definition for Watson isn’t a function of how many black students there are on campus at the private school. LeMoyne-Owen is more diverse racially and culturally than it has been going back to his days as a student. There are white students on campus attending classes and there are faculty members who are Muslim.

Watson’s style is different than Price’s because the college, which is marking its 150th anniversary this year, is in different times. He is quick to acknowledge that he didn’t know much about the supply chain and logistics courses LeMoyne-Owen recently added. His approach was not to have a faculty member tell him about the classes. Instead, Watson dropped by several times and sat in on classes.

“Find good people and then get out of the way and let them do their job. Don’t micromanage them,” Watson said of his approach. “Look at how clean my desk is.”