Designing fellow: Sam Johnson takes Museum helm

Mister Rogers. It's the first thing I thought of when I first laid eyes on the new exhibit and outreach coordinator at the Virginia Discovery Museum– and that was well before the icon of children's television lost his battle with cancer. Swathed in a beige cardigan sweater, soft-spoken Sam Johnson exudes the same grandfatherly warmth that so appeals to young children.

"This job was designed for me," says the 61-year-old kid-at-heart. "It's a place where I can apply many of my skills I never thought I'd use."

Just having a Ph.D. in anthropology might be more than enough to qualify Johnson for the job in which he's responsible for creating multidimensional, scientifically based exhibits aimed at kids from three to 12. This background has already proven useful in his first exhibit focusing on the Mandan Indians of North Dakota. American Indians and linguistics are his specialties, so he's added a unique cultural dimension to the exhibit that was planned long before he started the job.

"The first exhibit he created really shows his vision," says the museum's executive director, Peppy Linden. "Sam combines a lot of hands-on expertise with a natural curiosity and an excitement about working in a museum setting."

In addition to being a scientist, Johnson is also an inventor, with seven patents on four different products including ergonomic garden tools, a felt-tip pen that can't lose its cap, and a circular calendar that depicts the whole year in a circle along with the seasons, moon cycles, and both astrological and astronomical zodiacs.

More than 20 years as a computer consultant and software engineer, a small business entrepreneur, father of two grown children, and a love of teaching kids add to Johnson's qualifications for the position he officially started on November 1 of last year. On top of it all, he's always been interested in discovery-type museums and has long wanted to try his hand at designing museum exhibits.

Johnson and his family moved to Charlottesville from Atlanta just over a year ago when his wife Deborah was hired to teach philosophy and computer ethics at UVA. He'd been working at home with his own small business, but when his daughter graduated from high school and went off to college, Johnson decided it was time to get a real job.

"I really like living in Charlottesville," he says. "When I first got here, it didn't look any different than other small college towns. But I don't know what it is... Maybe it's the friendliness of the people. They stop to let you cross the street."

Yep, that's our neighborhood, Mr. Johnson. Welcome aboard.