UNM Professor Emeritus Dr. Peder Jack Johnson is being remembered as an extraordinary human being.

Johnson died at home on Aug. 11, 2023, at age 87, leaving the earth a better place than he found it, according to his friends and family. Many at UNM attest to that as well.

"‚ÄčA highly-skilled and dedicated cognitive scientist, he remained active in research well after retirement, investigating basic and applied questions related to expertise, knowledge representation, and concept learning. Peder’s compassion, generosity, quick wit, and genuine caring about student success made him an immensely popular professor, mentor, and colleague," UNM Psychology Department Chair Derek Hamilton said.

Johnson was born in Duluth, Minn., on Nov. 7, 1936, as the only child of John Palmer Johnson and Mabel Irwick Johnson. 

He earned a Bachelor’s of Science in Psychology at the University of Minnesota-Duluth and a Master’s of Science in Child Experimental Psychology at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. This was where he discovered his passion for a career in academics.

That took him west to the University of Colorado in Boulder, where he earned a Doctorate in Cognitive Psychology in 1965, and met his future wife, Susan Strand.  

After he served a year in the US Air Force, Johnson was recruited to the Department of Psychology at the University of New Mexico in 1966. Albuquerque was where he further built his iconic reputation, research and community for 30 years.

“Peder was part of a core group of young faculty who transformed the Department from a bunch of old-school educators scattered throughout closet-like offices into the vibrant and dynamic department that exists today,” former student Rene Silleroy said. “Peder was a popular professor, a kind and compassionate person with a keen mind and quick wit who laughed often and easily. He required his students to think critically and insisted on research-based teaching and practice.”

At UNM, his research focused on concept learning, attention, implicit learning, and knowledge elicitation and representation, as well as the early details of artificial intelligence. His explorations were supported by the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the Federal Aviation Administration, where he focused on the assessment of cognitive skills in airplane pilots. 

“Although Peder was an accomplished and highly respected scientist, he really stood out, in my mind, as a mentor to his students,” former student Tom Toppino said. “He provided just the right mix of direction, support, and freedom so that students could develop their own identity as emerging psychological scientists.  His fingerprints are all over my career, but there were no Peder Johnson clones.”  

Johnson retired as Professor Emeritus in 1997. Fellow UNM Psychology Professor Emeritus John Gluck noted that when he spoke at his formal retirement party, Johnson said there were two things he was very proud of:  that he had never experimented on rats and that he had avoided ever being the department chair. 

“We all laughed but his statement ran deep.  The room was full of rat runners and those who would sell their mother to be chair.  This was his parting gift to challenge our professional aspirations,” Gluck said.

A lifelong truth-seeker—though skeptical of the idea that there was such a thing—Peder continued to his very last day to contemplate the big questions of what constitutes a meaningful life.   

Johnson is survived by his beloved daughter, Nina, her husband Michael Huber, and their two children, Andrew and Sarah Huber, of Leander, Texas.  He is also survived by his life partner, Betsy Greenlee, and her family, Anne, Sean, and Aidan Portman of Albuquerque, and James and Theo Borda of Chipping Norton, England,  his former wife and still friend Susan Johnson; Steven Gangestad and Kevin Malloy, the surviving members of the Martini Club; frequent lunch companions Joe Boroughs, John Gluck, and Roger White; Zoom partners Roger Schvanavelt and Kevin Wolf; and numerous former students, former colleagues, and old and new friends with whom he forged lasting bonds.

“Peder was interested in learning about everyone he ever met. In the hospital he had long conversations with the ever-changing crew of caregivers, all of whom warmed to him and often ended up telling him about their own lives,” his family recalled. “ One day, after hearing the harrowing life story of the beautiful Ghanian hospitalist, Peder said, “This is probably the last place I would ever have wanted to be, but it is really a rich experience.”

A private burial has taken place and a memorial is being planned for later in the fall.  Johnson believed that education underlies every path to human advancement and fulfillment.

"I am grateful to be among the fortunate individuals who worked closely with Peder, which has allowed me to appreciate the profound and lasting impact of his contributions to UNM Psychology," Hamilton said.