A Formula for Success and Philanthropy
By Barbara Brooks
When Steve Johnson (BSME '67) chose the University of Denver for his undergraduate education, two factors mattered most: He wanted a good program in mechanical engineering and, as a first-generation college student from a low-income family in Portland, Oregon, he needed significant financial aid. He also had a minor interest in music.
Today, Steve's formula for philanthropy is similar. While he and his wife, Suzanne, support the Denver Scholarship Foundation and other educational and environmental organizations, their recent significant estate gift to DU is split evenly between the Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science and the Lamont School of Music. Both gifts are allocated to the deans' discretionary funds. "It's a leap of faith," he acknowledges, "but I'm relying on the goodwill and judgment of the administration and faculty to steer the money to where it will be the most effective."
While engineering became Steve's livelihood, music has remained an interest. When he arrived on campus, he found the engineering curriculum so demanding that he set music aside—until some 30 years later when he was drawn to the sound of the classical guitar. He began attending recitals at Lamont, where, he says, "The people were very friendly, and it was a very positive environment."
Before long, he became a volunteer for the Lamont Society Council, eventually serving as the group's president. He also bought a guitar and began taking lessons from Lamont students and occasionally from Jonathan Leathwood, the chair of the guitar and theory program.
"I'll always be a beginner," he says. "But that's OK. I'm content with my musical limitations." Steve says he loves to be around the sounds of the instrument, as well as the students and staff at Lamont. Some of his teachers are 50 years his junior.
After graduating from DU, Steve earned a master's degree in engineering from Stanford, and he went to work at the Stanford Research Institute. In Palo Alto, he met his wife, Suzanne, who was in nursing at Stanford Medical Center.
In 1978, the couple moved back to Denver. Steve worked at a medical equipment company and later co-founded Evergreen Research, a company that specializes in medical product design. Suzanne became a nationally known expert in professional development for nurses.
Today, they both are in their 70s and retired. They have no children and their closest relatives are financially secure. So, they decided to give away the majority of their wealth, some to the University of Denver, which had a profound influence on Steve. He is pleased to be able to pay back some of the generosity he received.
"In the case of engineering, the education I got at DU was foundational for my career and helped me throughout my life," Steve says. "And music remains a refuge against the chaos of the modern world."
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