University of Pittsburgh
October 24, 2005

Delores Johnson, Pitt's Longest-Serving Woman Staffer, to Retire

2000 Winner of Chancellor's Award for Excellence

Sharon Blake


Cell: 412-277-6926

PITTSBURGH—When 18-year-old Delores "Dee" Johnson reported for her first day of work at the University of Pittsburgh, many students commuted to classes aboard trolleys that rumbled through Oakland, the Pittsburgh Pirates played their home games where Pitt's Posvar Hall now stands, and campus breezes often carried the acrid tang of smoke from the city's still-booming steel mills.

Forty-seven years later—on Nov. 1—Johnson, a communications support services specialist in Pitt's Office of Public Affairs, will retire with the distinction of being the University's longest-serving female employee. Pitt plans to honor her at a by-invitation retirement reception this week.

"I never thought I'd be here at Pitt for so many years, to tell you the truth, but I've enjoyed my work and I've learned a lot," says Johnson, who in 2000 received the Chancellor's Award for Excellence for Staff Employees. The chancellor's awards, Pitt's highest staff honors, go to employees who demonstrate dedication to their units and community service beyond their job responsibilities. In a letter to Johnson informing her of the award, Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg wrote: "You are, indeed, an exemplary member of the University staff, and I am pleased that you have been publicly recognized for your dedication."

"In some ways, it was like a different world on Pitt's campus back when I started here," recalls Johnson, a petite woman whose soft speaking voice contrasts with her soaring vocals as a singer of jazz, blues, rock 'n' roll, and gospel with a variety of pop music acts and church choirs over the years.

In 1958, when Johnson began her University of Pittsburgh career as a microscope technician in the physics department's Cyclotron Laboratory, Pitt was still a private university. By today's standards, the student body and workforce were startlingly homogeneous; "I remember seeing very few Blacks on campus besides me," Johnson

says, with a chuckle. And a number of prominent campus buildings—Posvar and Mervis halls, Hillman Library, the Barco Law Building, the Chevron Science Center, and the Litchfield Towers, among others—were years away from construction. (The two-storybuilding on O'Hara Street that housed the cyclotron lab is long gone, demolished to make way for the University's Learning Research and Development Center.)

Johnson moved in 1971 from the physics department to Pitt's Office of News and Publications (now Public Affairs), where she has contributed to producing Pitt Magazine, Pitt Med, and other University publications. From typing on manual typewriters early in her Pitt career and formatting copy on a pre-desktop-publishing machine called a composer, Johnson graduated over the years to word processing and working with sophisticated, Web-based software.

"Pitt has always been a good place for training you to upgrade your skills" to keep pace with changing technology, Johnson says.

Respiratory and immune-system problems have plagued Johnson in recent years, and her fingers have grown too stiff for her to continue typing—or, in her musical life, to play the keyboards. But Johnson has kept on singing, performing at several church social events recently, and she hopes to resume singing soon with the choir at Albright Methodist Church in Shadyside.

Occasionally, Johnson says, she gets a kick out of hearing on local oldies stations some of the singles she recorded in the 1960s with The Twilighters, a pop/rock 'n' roll group that she formed with several fellow graduates of Pittsburgh's Fifth Avenue High School. In addition to releasing locally well-received singles, The Twilighters performed in New York City and Detroit. With the group and as a soloist, Johnson has shared stages with George Benson, The Skyliners, and a young Richard Pryor, and she has recorded for Dionne Warwick and guitarist Lee Valentine.

University of Pittsburgh Provost James V. Maher recalls working with Johnson early in his Pitt career: "When I arrived here as a 28-year-old assistant professor of physics, several of my first experiments used a magnetic spectrometer, for whose high resolution Pitt was famous at the time. The data from the spectrometer were recorded on photographic plates, which had to be read by carefully trained scanners before the physicists could begin to analyze them. Delores was a very highly respected member of the group of scanners, both because of the accuracy of her work and because of her wonderful attitude toward communicating with the physicists and learning what we wanted her to look for on the plates. I remember her as a wonderful friend and colleague and hope that her well-earned retirement is very satisfying for her."

"When Dee began her service at Pitt," says Robert Hill, Pitt vice chancellor for public affairs, "there were no moon landings, plasma screen TVs on the living room wall, or computers on the desk top. During her long tenure at Pitt, Dee watched most of the second half of the 20th century. I am pleased to have been a part of the last six years of Dee's Pitt journey. I found her to be a wonderful staff member, an effective community servant, a powerful vocalist, and, most importantly, a good human being. I miss her already."