Cal Johnson’s involvement in the Big Canoe community has been nothing short of exceptional. His contributions have spanned a wide range of areas, each leaving a lasting impression on the lives of residents and the community as a whole – POA Board President Tim Moran
Described as a man of “unwavering commitment, vision, and leadership” who has “made an indelible mark on the Big Canoe community and beyond,” Calvert “Cal” Johnson is the 2023 recipient of the Big Canoe President’s Award presented by the POA Board to honor an exceptional volunteer in the community.
“Cal has left an indelible impact on our community through his leadership, dedication, and passion for various causes,” adds Moran.
Cal took on the role of Chair of the Advisory Board for the Knowledge Series at Big Canoe Chapel in 2013, shepherding this recently rejuvenated organization that has been a beacon of knowledge, fostering regional, national, and international interest in the topics it covers. His many accomplishments around Big Canoe include serving as the chair of the Community Center Committee; serving as the chair of the POA’s Conservation Committee, where he oversaw eight subcommittees. In that role, he co-chaired the Wildlife Subcommittee, which successfully fundraised for a bronze sculpture of a mother bear with three cubs now by the Playfield.
As the Chair of the Board of Directors for The ArtReach Foundation from 2009 to 2011, he played a pivotal role in establishing a Middle East Institute in Amman, Jordan. Through this initiative, teachers and caregivers of Iraqi children traumatized by war received training in creative arts therapies. Cal’s contributions to Project America, a program supporting American war veterans and their families through art therapy, further demonstrate his commitment to healing and resilience in the face of adversity.
From his work on the Board of Directors for the North Georgia Community Foundation to that as the Concert Manager and Executive Director of the Casual Classics Concert Series in Jasper, Cal’s contributions have touched on numerous causes, disciplines and regions.
With too many other accomplishments to list here, we stopped long enough to ask Cal about winning the award, his commitment to public service, and what he loves about Big Canoe.
Q: What does it mean to you to win the President’s Award?
A: Needless to say, I never set out to win such an award—but it is always pleasant to be recognized, and for one’s efforts on behalf of the community at large to be appreciated! Speaking of which, I would like to recognize the others on these committees who made everything possible. The Black Bear Project was co-founded with Paul and Barb Powers and Ken Dutter. Many, many good people contribute time and ideas to this worthy endeavor, and I want to mention Will Jackson in particular. Likewise, many served on the Knowledge Committee and its subcommittees. And my work on the Conservation Committee was aided and abetted by Dave Holty especially, but also Judy Kaufman and Gordon Griffiths.
Q: A lot of people know you for your work with the Black Bear Project, the Knowledge Series, and numerous other organizations or committees. How did you develop such a commitment to community service?
A: I’ve always done volunteer work, as far back as I can remember, starting with participation in church activities as a child (I was the volunteer pianist for Sunday School from the sixth grade!). It is just part of who I am, and frankly, we all have a responsibility to voluntarily do what we can to improve the community in which we find ourselves, whether an organization of which we are a member, the town, the country, or mankind generally. This was reinforced when I became a professor because every year you are evaluated on teaching, research/publication/creative work, and also service to the community (the college/university, the profession, your students, the city in which your institution is based, etc.). You cannot be approved for any advancement without demonstrating some service activities.
Q: You wear a lot of hats. How do you identify yourself?
A: Foremost, I’m a professor and a professional musician.
Q: Much of your background highlights a deep passion for various cultures and disciplines. You are multi-lingual. You’ve presented or studied all over the world. Was it a goal to encourage some level of cultural breadth to Big Canoe, especially through the Knowledge Series?
A: Growing up, I was fascinated by my father’s travels, as well as by people we hosted in our home who lived or worked in other states or countries. He was a civil engineer with the Bureau of Reclamation. He was part of the team that designed most of the dams and irrigation projects in the West, most famously Hoover Dam. However, he was sent abroad by the U.S. government as well to places like Lebanon and Bolivia. I liked his slide shows from his travels.
We also did daily devotions in our home, and this was sometimes using the Bible in Spanish, or later on in French—in part so my father could keep up his own language skills. I started studying Spanish in the third grade because my hometown of Denver has a notable and very old Spanish-speaking population descended from Coronado’s explorers.
My first trip abroad was as a teacher’s aide in Honduras, where I had to speak Spanish daily; by the time I got to Madrid a year later for my junior year abroad, I was fluent in the language. I started French in college and was fortunate enough to be awarded a Fulbright to study in France, and became fluent living in Toulouse, where there were hardly any native-English speakers; frankly, that year was one of the best of my life: the people in the southwest of France are so hospitable! My doctoral program at Northwestern required fluency (at least reading) in several languages, and I passed the tests in Spanish and French easily for obvious reasons. But German and Italian are pretty important for musicians as well, so I set out to learn those. I enjoyed my time at the Goethe Institute in Berlin, and doing research in Italy, especially Bologna.
You know, Big Canoe has a wealth of physical activities such as golf, tennis, pickleball, hiking, swimming. For a well-rounded life, and, frankly, longevity and mental acuity for seniors, what struck some of us was the relative dearth of intellectual activities. A Leadership Big Canoe group actually promoted the creation of something like what became the Knowledge Series. I got involved because I had a lot of experience organizing series featuring speakers and performing arts events, dating back to my first higher education job at Northeastern Oklahoma State University. I chaired a similar committee at Agnes Scott for many years and also organized conferences there on such topics as “Creative Women of the Chicago Renaissance,” “Hildegard von Bingen,” and a year-long series of speakers and concerts focusing on Latin America. While I cannot say that I had an intention of encouraging cultural breadth to Big Canoe through the Knowledge Series, it was certainly a component.
Q: How did you end up in Big Canoe?
A: When my spouse and I got together, my house in Decatur sold quickly, and we had wanted a home in the mountains: obviously the Blue Ridge isn’t quite as spectacular as the Rockies, but still, they are mountains close to Atlanta for a weekend outing.
Q: You’re an accomplished organist and scholar who taught for many years. Do you have a favorite organist – or maybe a top three?
A: That is really hard to choose. While I admire the technical mastery of many organists, I also have a great respect for those who take into consideration the composers’ wishes as well as the style of the period: what we call historically informed performance. The third ingredient would be expressivity. There are so many flashy performers who can play loud and fast in an impressive manner, but who just draw attention to themselves and not to the music. That said, of organists, I have heard over my career, perhaps my favorite was Marie Claire Alain, a French woman who performed an incredible breadth of music of many styles with great musicianship; I brought her to perform at the Cathedral of St. Philip at the national convention of the American Guild of Organists in 1992 when I was Chair of the Performances Committee for the convention. Of living organists, one for whom I have a lot of respect is David Higgs, chair of the organ department at the Eastman School of Music, who is committed to historically-informed performance and is one of the great performers of our time.
Q: What can you share about yourself that would surprise most people?
A: I don’t know – I’m pretty middle-of-the-road on most issues. Hobby: I’m a philatelist specializing in U.S mint stamps.
Q: Describe a perfect day for you in Big Canoe?
A: Beautiful weather; a walk on one of the trails or just the playfield track; good conversation on the porch with friends.
Q: Who do you most admire?
A: There are so many people who have made a difference, whether on a very local level or internationally. In my profession, clearly Johann Sebastian Bach is an amazing composer with intellectual and spiritual depth, who wrote challenging as well as very listenable music, as a culmination of the Baroque era. My car license plate is “Brahms,” so you know another of my favorite composers! In our time, King Hussein of Jordan and Queen Elizabeth II of England both exemplify the best of leadership, setting an example for all and reaching out to friend and foe alike in a humane way.
Q: You’re always working to enhance Big Canoe. If you were the King of Wolfscratch with the power to do anything, what would you do to Big Canoe?
A: Impossibly, I’d require that people treat each other with respect and civility (that goes for the United States and the world as well!!!!). Given the foundation of Big Canoe with its focus on conservation — this goes for nature as well (shocking how much trash one finds along the roadways of Big Canoe). Respect this beautiful setting and the flora and fauna here.
Q: What do you love most about Big Canoe?
A: Obviously, the mountain and forest setting. But also, there are accomplished people of such varied backgrounds and experiences, many of whom have a commitment to volunteer service. With so many people who have contributed to the betterment of Big Canoe living here, I’m astonished that I would be selected for this award, and I’m humbled by it.