Photo of Len Johnson
In Memoriam: Professor Emeritus Leonard Johnson

We are very sad to learn that our colleague and friend Len Johnson died on September 26. Len was a specialist in Late Medieval and 16th-century literature. Below is an obituary prepared by Len's close friend, the Rev. Thaddeus Bennett, followed by remembrances from Berkeley colleagues.

Leonard Wilkie Johnson

September 1, 1931 – September 26, 2023

It is with sadness, but also with appreciation for a life well lived, that we announce to the Dartmouth/St Mark’s/UC Berkeley and wider community the passing of our friend, colleague, and family member, Dr. Leonard Wilkie Johnson, on September 26, 2023 at the age of 92.   Len was born in Oakland, California, to Leonard Carl and Frances Wilkie Johnson in 1931.  His father worked for many years in the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, which meant moving the family every few years from the west coast to the east coast then back again.  His sister Thora was born two years after Len, and they remained close friends throughout their lives.

Len had a rich life in academia, discovering a passion early on for France and French history and literature.  He earned a Bachelor’s degree in French from Dartmouth (Senior Fellow) and his PhD (Fulbright Scholar) from Harvard University in French literature of the late medieval and early Renaissance ages.  During this time in his life, he was able to spend extended periods in France, living, working, and studying in Bordeaux, Aix-en-Provence, and other parts of the country.  At the conclusion of his doctorate in 1961, he accepted a professorship in the French department at U.C. Berkeley, where he remained for 35 years.  He loved teaching!  After retirement he maintained close ties to France, guiding culture and history trips to the country (often with a focus on food and wine, another lifelong interest of his), and being recognized by the French government for his contributions to the furtherance of French culture.  Len was well known amongst his friends as being an excellent host and chef of great dinner parties.

His other deep and lifelong connection was to his Episcopal church.  After being raised in the Baptist church, he began attending Episcopal services during his time in college, and was confirmed in the Episcopal Church several years later.  Soon after arriving in Berkeley, he began attending services at St Mark’s, found his spiritual home, was soon volunteering, and quickly made this community a central part of his life.  He served in numerous roles at St Mark’s, including Head Usher and, many times, as Senior Warden.   Given his many gifts, Len also served the Episcopal Diocese of California and national Episcopal Church in many capacities, including Chair of the diocesan Standing Committee, Chair of the Board of the Examining Chaplains and, most recently, as a Board member of the Episcopal Church Foundation. In addition to his dedicated work on the boards of church organizations and charities, he was available to provide many years of assistance to members of the congregation when they were ill or infirm.  He will be remembered by all for his wit, compassion, dedication, and enjoyment of life.

He is survived by his nephew Adham, Adham’s wife Crystal and their two sons Tasman and Atlas, his nephew Raef, his brother-in-law Wafik and many dear friends.

A funeral was held on December 9, 2023 at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Berkeley, and a Celebration of Life for Len is planned for the afternoon (3pm) of Saturday, June 22, 2024 at St. Mark's Episcopal Church (2300 Bancroft Way, Berkeley, CA 94704).  Please contact the Rev. Thad Bennett at  /  413-369-0119 for more information. Donations in honor of Len can be made to St. Mark’s Episcopal Church or to Episcopal Charities of the Episcopal Diocese of California.

Remembrances of Len from colleagues:

Ever since I first arrived at Berkeley, ages ago, I admired in Len Johnson a degree of erudition, taste and discernment with regard to France and French culture that was far beyond mine. I was repeatedly surprised to see that he was better acquainted with the most recent, irreverent writing from France than I was.   He is a lively figure in my long memory of the department and its character.    ­­­—Ann Smock

Len Johnson was one of the first professors I met when I arrived at Berkeley as an undergraduate.  I was in awe of his expertise.  Taking his courses on Montaigne and 16th century literature was an eye-opener.  His teaching was thorough and entertaining at the same time.  His high expectations of all of us as new undergraduates prepared us well for graduate studies.  I will miss him very much. —Seda Chavdarian

Len Johnson m’avait d’abord formidablement intimidée jusqu’à ce que je découvre qu’en privé il était charmant et souvent plein d’humour. Dans son cours il apparaissait comme un humaniste. Et puis personne dans ma génération n’oubliera son fameux punch! Celui qui donnait au fêtes du département une atmosphère  si particulière ! Ce passé s’effrite encore un peu plus avec sa disparition.   —Nelly Timmons

I remember well that Len was always an extraordinarily kind and soothing presence around Dwinelle Hall. He and I often reminisced on our shared interest and participation in Education Abroad. I often heard from undergraduates and graduates how much they enjoyed his classes, including how well he sang madrigals as background to the readings. He was a true "Renaissance Man," and I was fortunate to enjoy dinner at his house with some colleagues and his delightful mother, an unforgettable evening, be it for Len's superb cooking or the company.  We have lost a wonderful person.  —Françoise Sorgen-Goldschmidt

As an undergraduate student, I remember attending one of Len's Renaissance classes because the graduate students with whom I took classes told me what a wonderful teacher he was.  He was extraordinary and nearly scary because of the depth of his knowledge.  I noted in my library this morning, that when I was chosen for the position of medievalist in 1997 and undoubtedly at my visit to the campus, he gave me a copy of his extraordinary book--not on the Renaissance but on late medieval literature--"Poets as Players: Theme and Variation in Late Medieval French Poetry".  In the book, he wrote the following dedicace:  "For David, with every hope of  enticing him into Le Jardain de Plaisance (etc.)--Len Johnson, April 1997".  What a lovely and kind memory for me!  —David Hult