Three generations learn, research and teach here
If you ever watched Kevin Johnk walk to the bus stop after class at the University of Colorado Denver, you might have noticed that his companion was roughly 70 years his senior. Johnk was heading home from his undergraduate studies at the College of Engineering and Applied Science accompanied by his grandfather, Carl, who retired from teaching at the same school last year—at the age of 93.
“[My grandfather’s] way cooler than I am,” said the younger Johnk. “Being seen with him makes me cool.”
But that’s only two-thirds of the story. Kevin Johnk’s father, Bob, graduated from CU Denver in 1977 with a degree in electrical engineering. That means there has been a Johnk family member teaching or learning at CU Denver for the past 50 years. So, when Kevin walked across the stage to accept his baccalaureate degree in December at CU Denver’s Fall Commencement 2013, Johnk family pride was at its peak.
“It’s a thrill for my wife, Loan, and for me to see that he is on his way to independence, being able to support himself,” said Bob. “We are really proud of him.”
“Kevin has been the joy of our lives,” said Carl. “He has done remarkably well at anything he attempts.”
Kevin: Son, Civil Engineer, Class of 2013
With his pedigree, Kevin might have applied only to CU Denver, but he did consider several options. He settled on CU Denver after visiting the school and meeting Nien-Yin (NY) Chang, PhD, PE, professor of civil engineering. “He sat with me and said ‘This is what we do. This is what civil engineering is,’” said Kevin.
Unlike both his father and grandfather, whose PhD degrees are in electrical engineering, Kevin decided to major in civil engineering. His decision prompted some internal ribbing from both the elder Johnks.
“They say you have to be smarter to do electrical engineering,” said Kevin. “I say you have to be cooler to do civil [engineering]. But I think they are just happy I chose engineering.”
A 2012 internship at Denver International Airport and a course with Wesley Marshall, PhD, PE, assistant professor of civil engineering, helped him decide to focus on transportation engineering. “Planes, trains, bikes, cars—figuring out how to get from ‘point A’ to ‘point B’ just fascinated me,” Kevin said.
With both a father and grandfather who have PhDs, it is not surprising that Kevin is considering graduate school at some point. But before that next academic step, he intends to get some real-world experience under his belt.
“I would be thrilled to do engineering work that’s innovative and sustainable,” he said. “Most important, I want to do something fulfilling where I know I’m building a better community and helping people.”
In his aspirations, Kevin is following in his father’s footsteps.
Bob: Father, Electrical Engineer, Class of 1977
Bob, who started building electronic kits and working in ham radio when he was 16 years old, works at the Institute for Telecommunication Sciences, the research and engineering arm of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. His specialty area is public safety radio communications research.
“We are studying wireless and radio communications for first responders and looking at advanced methods to create secure and reliable communications,” he said. “We want to provide guidance on public safety for the community. It’s very cool stuff.”
Bob met Kevin’s mother, Loan, in the early 1970s when they were both students at CU Denver, before she transferred to CU-Boulder to study to become a pharmacist. Bob remembers attending classes in the old Denver Tramway Building, which students nicknamed “Tramway Tech.” Many of his fellow students were Vietnam War veterans, just returning to school on the G.I. Bill.
“I was a young kid out of high school and these vets were mature and serious,” Bob said. “They taught me a lot of things.”
Bob had his father, Carl, as a professor in courses on electromagnetic fields, but no one thought he got any special favors. “I was a self-starter and I worked hard, so it didn’t present any problems,” he remembered.
Carl: Grandfather, Teacher, Researcher, Author
Carl Johnk immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1924, timing which he describes as a “lucky accident,” since he left Germany before World War II. From 1943 to 1945, he served in the U.S. Navy as a chief ordinance officer, working on electronics and ocean testing of mines and torpedoes. He earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and went on to begin his teaching career at University of Colorado-Boulder in 1954. In the 1960s, he moved to teaching part-time at CU Denver while the school was still in its infancy.
Carl quite literally wrote the book on teaching electrical engineering. The first edition of his textbook, “Engineering Electromagnetic Fields and Waves,” was published in 1975, and the second edition, published in 1988, is the one currently in use.
Because he majored in civil engineering, Kevin never had his grandfather as a teacher, but both have benefitted from the kind of multi-generational learning that takes place around the dining room table.
“Certainly, he kept me young,” said Carl. “All my students do!”
“He has stories about any topic,” said Kevin. “He also had a lot of great advice—mostly ‘Study hard!’”
The family considers Carl to be a man who was ahead of his time. Kevin told a story about his grandfather making a prediction many decades ago. “He said ‘Eventually TVs are going to get so thin, it will be like a picture frame you can hang on the wall,” Kevin said. Today, you can find Carl’s prediction, now a reality, in any Costco or Best Buy.
Kevin, Bob, Carl, Benjamin: The tradition continues
Kevin credits the University Honors and Leadership program (UHL) at CU Denver for helping him succeed academically and socially. He liked the interdisciplinary approach to learning and believes it improved his writing. His only regret is that he didn’t start working to meet people until he was a junior. Now, he describes graduation as bittersweet.
“It will be sad,” Kevin said. “I will be saying good-bye to a lot of relationships.”
But the Johnk tradition continues. Kevin’s younger brother, Benjamin, started as a freshman studying civil engineering this year. That raises the prospect for another Johnk family commencement in four years, something Carl Johnk, now 94 years old, likes to imagine.
“I could stick around for one more graduation,” he said. “I would like that.”