Fortuitous Fellow: Classics Prof Wins Four Awards

Four full-year fellowships would be a big feather in the cap for any professor over the course of a long career. For William Johnson of UC’s classics department, that feather sprouts even taller. He won four fellowships all at once, for the 2003-04 academic year.

In baseball terms, that would be like batting a thousand. Johnson, assistant professor of


in the

McMicken College of Arts and Sciences

, won every fellowship he applied for to fund an upcoming leave of absence. Borrowing again from the baseball analogy - that would be like winning the Cy Young Award plus the Triple Crown for highest RBIs, highest batting average and highest number of home runs.

“It’s certainly a surprise,” says Johnson. “I thought I had a good chance of getting one or the other. It’s little astonishing that I won all.”

A literary scholar and papyrologist, he joined UC’s faculty in 1999. His award-winning ways began with the Gildersleeve Prize in 2000 for best article of the year in the American Journal of Philology. Johnson sought fellowships to expand his research on ancient reading culture, which he had introduced in that article. He wants to discover more about how the ancients read and the reasons why they read the way they did. For example, why did the ancients so often prefer reading aloud to silent reading? Why did they choose not to use word spacing in literature?

The topic, as well as the applicant, must be deemed worthy by the fellowship awards committees. They honored Johnson with a flurry of fellowships:

  • The National Endowment for the Humanities - $40,000. The 12-month award is the one that Johnson says he will accept.

  • The American Council for Learned Societies – A minimum of $60,000 for one year. Johnson hopes to extend this fellowship into another year.

  • The Center for Hellenic Studies Fellowship, at Harvard University’s south campus in Washington D.C. - $24,000 plus living expenses. Johnson had to decline this residential fellowship because of his other awards.

  • The National Center for the Humanities at Research Triangle Park in North Carolina - $28,000. Johnson will be declining it this year, but hopes to ask them to reconsider for next year.

The good fortune led colleagues, like Jack L. Davis, who holds UC’s Carl W. Blegen Chair in Greek Archaeology, to wonder in an e-mail to classics department head  Brian Rose: “Holy cow!  What didn't he win?”

Others suggested that perhaps the Roman goddess of good luck, Fortuna, was smiling down on Johnson. But classics department colleague Harry Gotoff warned Johnson before he won the fourth fellowship that he should hope he didn’t win anymore. He cautioned that the gods might turn on him.

Sure enough, the Monday after learning of the National Center for Humanities Fellowship, Johnson slipped while clearing snow off his steep driveway at home. He took a tumble down the hill, with his leg caught under him. He now sports a walking cast and has two breaks in his right fibula.

“I guess the gods were coming to correct the hubris,” quipped Johnson, who is using a cane to walk for the next few weeks. “This is Nemesis [the goddess of vengeance].”

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