Photo: The author, taken in London where he presented at a conference on Afghanistan in 2006.
Thomas E. Johnson, Jr. was born in 1956 and raised in San Diego, CA. His father was a physicist who first worked as an aeronautical engineer and later in nuclear fusion; he had several patents to his name. His mother was initially a homemaker and later the executive assistant to the founder and president of North Sails while it was based in San Diego. His sister, Vicki, is involved in early childhood education.
From an early age, Thomas often visited the Point Loma branch library and later utilized the small libraries at his public schools. Based on investigating careers at his high school library, he chose the field of landscape architecture and enrolled in an accredited program at California Polytechnic University (Cal Poly) located in Pomona, CA. There, he spent many hours in the library, primarily attracted to books on art history and theory. Upon graduation in 1979 he practiced in Los Angeles and gained his license. Among the work he was involved with were two public parks located in the “skid row” area of downtown Los Angeles and site planning for 1984 summer Olympics. His first published work resulted from this parks project.
Thomas met his wife Michele (Gold) in 1983 and they were married in Brentwood, CA. The next year Thomas decided to enter a program in urban design at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. In preparing his thesis and other work he spent much time conducting research in the collection of libraries at Harvard and MIT. One particular paper he wrote in his senior year involved extensive research and was published in 1987 in a professional journal, Habitat International. It was a seminal work and is still being cited by other researchers 35 years later.
Thomas joined the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and became a commissioned U.S. Foreign Service Officer in 1987. His first posting with Michele was Bangkok where their elder daughter, Lauren, was born in 1990. Shortly therefore the family relocated with USAID to Tegucigalpa, Honduras. A second daughter, Vanessa, was born in 1991. Books during this period were all purchased in bookstores and shipped from the U.S. by family members and used for the book club hosted by Thomas and Michele. The Johnson family moved to Maputo, Mozambique in 1995 and spent six wonderful years in that African country. There were no public libraries, but the girls had access to books at their international school. Thomas was the U.S. Ambassador’s representative on the school board and helped to ensure the school library was well stocked with books ordered from abroad.
In early 2001 Thomas and Michele felt it was time for the girls to experience living in the U.S. and a two year assignment in Washington, D.C. followed – just in time for 9/11 and a sniper loose in the region. Books could once again be obtained from the local library in Vienna, VA. In 2003 the family moved to Bogota, Colombia. While in this modern, cosmopolitan city there were public libraries, most books were naturally written in Spanish. Thomas and family began to rely on books ordered online.
In 2005 Thomas volunteered for a USAID assignment in Afghanistan, leaving Michele in Bogota and the two girls enrolled in a boarding school in the D.C. area were they had access to a fine library. His books were delivered in the diplomatic pouch. After a final posting together in Jerusalem beginning in 2007, Thomas and Michele returned to Washington, D.C. and access to library books two years later.
Thomas retired from the Foreign Service in 2012 and three years later he and Michele moved to Amherst, MA, a location they chose in part because of its small college town character. He continued in semi-retirement to work in international development, but took up new pursuits (e.g., fly-fishing) and began to write for pleasure. Thomas combined his new interests and spent nearly two years researching a local history article which appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of the Journal of the American Museum of Fly Fishing. In 2019 he began the research which has lead to Common Place. Most recently, he has written a paper, The Art of Design: Philosophy, Psychology, Process and Practice, which is under consideration for publication in a journal.
On a final note, one might wonder what Thomas reads. In short, just about anything! He generally prefers narrative nonfiction works, but has recently enjoyed two historical novels, Russel Bank’s Cloudsplitter and Shadow Country, authored by Peter Matthiessen. The first book recounts the family tale of abolitionist John Brown, seen through the eyes of his real-life son, Owen. Thomas picked up Shadow Country, published in 2008 and winner of the National Book Award, at a wonderful used book store located in Hadley, MA which caters to the five colleges in the Pioneer Valley (Amherst College, University of Massachusetts/Amherst, Mt. Holyoke, Smith and Hampshire).
Thomas had previously read and enjoyed two of Matthiessen’s books, The Snow Leopard and At Play in the Fields of the Lord. He is also a great fan of Banks’ work, having first read Continental Drift during his graduate school days. Tragic to note how the turmoil in Haiti continues to this day. Both of these books by Banks were Pulitzer Prize finalists. Given Thomas’ visits to and work in Liberia, he also enjoyed Banks’ The Darling.
Thomas feels Shadow Country and Cloudsplitter are both a tour de force which reminded him in some ways of Steinbeck’s classic, East of Eden. All three books are about families and cover a particular period and places in great detail. One review compared the Shadow Country to Melville’s Moby Dick. The books by Banks and Matthiessen both highlight the tragic nature of race relations in America and help to illustrate how these have changed, or not, in the last 175 years. If nothing else, read Matthiessen’s Author’s Note in Shadow Country to get a sense of how significant this work is to America today.
Thomas is an Associate Member of the American Library Association and it’s Library History Round Table.