Carol Johnson holding a quilt in front of a bookshelf with University of Denver signThe assistant dean of MBA programs and marketing faculty is retiring after 28 years at the University of Denver

On the wall of Carol Johnson’s office, a quilt depicts the Denver skyline. Colors, fabrics, shapes, sewn together create a tableau that represents the place she’s called home for the last 28 years.

To the right, a tall, wide window frames a photo-worthy view of the University of Denver campus.

“If you would have told me when I was 35 that I was going to be a professor out here in Colorado,” Johnson mused, “I would have said you were crazy.”

Denver was never part of the plan. Neither was a tenured position in the marketing department at the Daniels College of Business. A job as assistant dean of MBA programs? Unimaginable.

Not with the way her college career began—and, so abruptly, ended.

Shortly after enrolling at the University of Maryland, Johnson had to drop out. Her father’s unexpected death left Johnson in charge of the family gift and greeting card business.

Three stores. Fifty employees. And one 17-year-old executive, in a position she never expected—or really wanted—to be in.

“When I was a kid, I wanted to be a home-ec teacher,” Johnson said. “My first choice (of career) was to teach young people how to sew and cook, helping them awaken to their strengths.

“Of course, that went out the window when you have to make money for your family and all that.”

The experience was “baptism by fire,” but Johnson learned to love the work. She kept the business running, made enough money to pay the bills and, eventually, re-enrolled in college. Balancing her job with classes, homework and motherhood was tough, but ultimately worth it. In 1980, Johnson became the first in her family to earn a college degree, a BS in marketing.

From there, Johnson made up for lost time. She sold the business in 1988, earned her MBA in 1990 and then her PhD in 1995, with a specialty in logistics and transportation management.

Her next stop, unexpectedly, was Denver. Her doctoral advisor knew someone at a small, private university who was looking for a supply chain expert. Johnson had never been to Colorado, but she hopped on a plane for an interview, took the job and never looked back.

Carol Johnson holds her hands out as she lectures in a classroom

Carol Johnson, lecturing to a class in 2010 (Photo courtesy of Carol Johnson)

At DU, she thrived as associate director of the Intermodal Transportation Institute and an assistant professor in the Department of Marketing. She wasn’t teaching home economics, like she dreamed of doing as a child, but still, Johnson thrived in the classroom environment.

“I loved teaching,” she said. “If I could figure out how to present it to these students in the right way and they really got it, it could make a little bit of change in their life for the better. They would begin to see the world in a little different, more complicated, but better way.”

Plus, she said, it kept her young. Interactions with her students kept her up to date with technology and constantly repositioned the way she saw the world.

In 2001, she would earn a Fullbright position in Latvia. Not long after she returned, she became the first female tenured professor in the marketing department and its first female chair.

“Carol has enhanced educational experiences, developed collaborative learning environments, and enriched the lives of faculty, staff and students,” said Melissa Akaka, an associate professor of marketing and co-director of the Consumer Insights and Business Innovation Center. “I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from and work with Carol. Her presence at Daniels will be greatly missed. The impact of her career at DU will continue to have ripple effects for many years to come.”

Arguably her greatest impact has been on the degree programs she has created and re-created. Johnson led a revamp of the master’s in marketing and later modified the part-time Professional MBA, working with a third-party provider to create the online MBA@Denver program. She devised a recipe of core classes, advanced core classes, electives and concentrations. She wanted to make the structure as easy as possible to ensure working students could dedicate as much time as possible to their studies, rather than to searching for resources on an learning platform. 

“Throughout the years, Carol has shown what it means to be empathetic, passionate, caring—a true leader,” said Federica Bologna, assistant director of marketing, research and analysis for the MBA programs department. “Aside from being an inspiration to women leaders, she has been a trailblazer for Daniels. Carol manages to do this with incredible interpersonal skills as well as impressive academic credentials and professionalism.”

But after decades of service to the College, Johnson realized she wasn’t as energetic as she had been. After teaching more than 150 classes and publishing plenty of research articles, books and book chapters, her flame, she said, was dwindling. She knew it was time to step aside. Daniels has given her an unparalleled community and sense of satisfaction.

In her retirement, Johnson intends to spend more time on her passion, quilting, and pursue the dream that never quite came true. With needle, thread and scissors in hand, Johnson plans to make quilts for homeless shelters and children’s hospitals. She hopes to have the opportunity to teach sewing to children, just like she wanted to do before life diverted her path.

“I want to use my skills to give back,” she said. “There are so many things that these sewists and quilters do for others because there’s only so many quilts you can have in your house or give away [as gifts]. I look forward to just doing a lot of charity work, sewing for people who can’t sew.”

She loves the fabrics, the colors, the way big pieces become little pieces—and the way those little pieces are sewn back together. It’s not all that different, she says, from her winding path through the world.

“It has certainly been a quilt of many memories and many people,” she said. “The road my life has taken, when I look back over it, I’ve been through a lot of quite horrible things. Each of those things has made me stronger. Each fork in the road, as they say, I took, and it brought me to where I am today. And it couldn’t have been a better place.”