Walter Hugh Johns was born in 1908 on a farm near Exeter, Ontario. In 1930 he received a B.A. in honours classics from the University of Western Ontario. At Cornell University he received a Ph.D. in classics and ancient history in 1934.
From 1930 to 1938 Dr. Johns served as teaching fellow at Victoria College in Toronto; graduate instructor at Cornell University; and professor at Waterloo College. Moving to Alberta in 1938, he taught at the University of Alberta in positions from lecturer to professor until 1973.
At the University of Alberta he also served in capacities as assistant to the dean of arts and sciences, 1945-47; assistant to the president, 1947-52; dean of arts and sciences, 1952-57; vice-president, 1957-59; and president from 1959 to 1969.
As university president he gave inspired guidance during a period of unprecedented growth, which saw the student population increase two and a half times, the complement of full-time teachers quadruple, and the physical size of the University more than triple.
With typical energetic dedication, Dr. Johns played a major role, over a period of twenty years, in establishing junior colleges at Lethbridge, Red Deer, Medicine Hat, Grande Prairie and official association with Camrose College. He assisted in drafting the new Universities Act of 1966, and was involved in the steady development of programs and faculty in Calgary, which culminated in full autonomy for the University of Calgary.
In 1952 he was sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for a study tour of British universities, and in 1954 he toured universities in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California. He attended meetings of Commonwealth universities in Montreal, London, Melbourne and Sydney; as well as meetings of the International Association of Universities in Mexico City and Tokyo.
In great demand as an accomplished speaker, he gave hundreds of speeches throughout Alberta from Hinton to Wainwright, and from Medicine Hat and Lethbridge in the south, to Peace River and Beaverlodge in the north. For the Canadian Club he embarked on a speaking tour to British Columbia in 1970, and also covered the Prairies for them in 1971.
Dr. Johns wrote articles, book reviews and speeches, which were published in various journals. As his major literary work over a period of 8 years, he researched and compiled a comprehensive 544-page illustrated history of the University entitled A History of the University of Alberta 1908-1969 which was published by the University of Alberta Press in 1981.
Dr. Johns was the recipient of a number of awards and honours including:
- Honorary Degree (LL.D.) University of Western Ontario, 1959
- Doctorate es Lettres, Laval University, 1964
- Honorary Degree (LL.D.) University of Saskatchewan, 1968
- Honorary Degree (LL.D.) Waterloo Lutheran University, 1968
- Honorary Degree (LL.D.) University of Alberta, 1970
- Honorary Life Member, University of Alberta Alumni Association
- Golden Jubilee Award, University of Alberta Alumni Association
- Alberta Achievement Award 1977
- Officer of the Order of Canada, O.C., 1978
He was active as a member and executive member of numerous academic, community and cultural associations such as: the Classical Association of Canada; the American Philological Association; the Humanities Association of Canada; the Council of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada of which he was president in 1966-67: the Senate of St. Stephens’ College; the United Way Campaign; University Hospitals Board; the Governor General’s Award Board for Academic Non-Fiction; Alberta Novelists Award Committee; chairman, Alberta Task Force on Nursing Education; chairman, Proceedings Committee, Seventh National Northern Development Conference; chairman, Alberta Press Council; the board of Allen Gray Auxiliary Hospital, and the Fund Raising Advisory Committee of the University of Alberta.