From D.C. to Hawaii and Back

Geological engineering alumnus Gage Johnson consults on major, varied construction projects

Gage Johnson. Submitted photo

From a naval command center to the Cannon House Office Building, Gage Johnson (BSGE 17) has literally come full circle in his career path.

“My current title is ‘consultant,’” the Chattanooga, Tennessee, native said. “I have worked on a plethora of jobs within the past two years of working for McDonough Bolyard Peck Inc. (a construction firm headquartered in Fairfax, Virginia). No two projects are alike.”

Johnson has been an Americans with Disabilities Act compliance inspector on many apartments under construction and served as construction/project manager on the installation of a new HVAC system on a middle school and an elementary school in D.C. In December 2019, he moved almost 5,000 miles away to Honolulu, Hawaii, to work as the risk and change manager for an MBP client, the Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command Pacific.

“I assisted the efforts in building a new $10 billion Marine base on Guam,” Johnson said. “For seven months, I lived in Waikiki and worked on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. While working on this project, I was able to visit Camp Blaz, Andersen Air Force Base and Naval Base Guam, located in Guam.”

Upon Johnson’s return to D.C., he assisted with the renovation of many of the national parks being renovated under the $9.5 billion Great American Outdoors Act. He works as the project control engineer under the Architect of the Capitol, in efforts to renovate the Cannon House of Representatives Office Building.

Coming to Ole Miss

Johnson was one of three students in his high school graduating class to attend the University of Mississippi.

“My reason for attending was to experience something new, as well as to attend the engineering school,” he said. “I knew I wanted to go farther west and explore more of what this country has to offer, but not be too far from home. Mississippi was just far enough.”

From his senior year of high school, Johnson knew he wanted to go into engineering. However, he did not know which branch.

“At first, I wanted to go into chemical engineering. Then I found out about the geological engineering program, and I was immediately sold,” he said.

Gregg Davidson, chair and professor of geology and geological engineering, said Johnson impressed him as “outgoing.”

“I recall Gage as one of those rare incoming freshmen with the maturity and confidence to drop by my office to personally introduce themselves,” he said. “Gage had some professional and personal interests similar to my own, and took the time to let me know.”

Fond Memories

Johnson vividly recalled his first day of class at the university.

“It is day one, 8 a.m.,” he said. “I walk into an unknown building, later to be remembered as Shoemaker Hall, with 100 unknown people. Everyone could hear the music blaring from the classroom before we even entered: ‘Volcano’ by Jimmy Buffett.”

Immediately, Johnson saw instructor Cathy Grace dancing and singing along. The image of her dancing led him to make a connection that endured throughout his entire four years at Ole Miss.

“Colleen Bransford, Bryan Brick, Liz Vitale and I would always go to Cathy’s office to chat during our free time,” he said. “Furthermore, every year, we would sign up to be volunteers on the Geology 103 trip to Tishomingo State Park, which Cathy led.”

Favorite Courses

One of Johnson’s favorite courses was Petroleum Geology, a special topic class taught by Walter Guidroz. He remembered the course as “extremely absorbing” because it gave real-life examples and insider knowledge of the oil industry.

“Having worked for Amoco and BP for 40-plus years, Dr. Guidroz gave real, hands-on lessons that made concepts easy to grasp,” he said. “Dr. Guidroz also had the experience of being the interviewer for a copious number of positions at BP. Naturally, we had mock interviews. Not only did we get to practice interviewing for jobs, we actually received positive and constructive feedback on our resumes and on our responses to questions asked.”

Johnson said he also enjoyed senior classes taught by UM geology and geological engineering faculty members Robert Holt and Andrew O’Reilly.

“Senior design was definitely the most rigorous course I took during my time but also one of the most enjoyable,” he said. “Forming teams and designing a nuclear waste facility, U.S. Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, which was 2,000 feet underground and about the size of a football field and contained ceilings 10-15 feet tall, was the most interesting project I had ever completed during my time at Ole Miss.”

During the spring semester, the entire class boarded two charter buses and made the long haul to Carlsbad, New Mexico, where they camped out at a KOA for a week.

“During our time in the desert, we performed our own preliminary work (i.e., topographical mapping, WIPP site tour, etc.),” Johnson said. “We were actually able to see, to walk on, to kick the dirt of the exact place where our facility was going to be built – theoretically, of course. That was the most significant and memorable week of my four years.”

Sharing the Knowledge

Of all the activities and organizations in which Johnson was involved, his favorite was being a teaching assistant during his junior and senior years. He was a TA for the geographic information system, geomorphology and environmental geology labs.

“I thoroughly enjoyed being a TA because I was able to meet and build relationships with students who (became) my friends, even to this day,” Johnson said. “Also, assisting with these labs reinforced my knowledge, and I was able to apply that knowledge to more advanced classes. Being a TA also gave me the responsibility and luxury of having a job and not having to leave campus, or even the building.”

Giving Credit Where It’s Due

Johnson praises the Ole Miss School of Engineering and its staff for having been extremely beneficial to him in his career path.

“(They did this) by providing real-life, hands-on experiences that go beyond textbooks, by structuring the advanced courses as project-based instead, by teaching the more difficult/tedious way of learning,” Johnson said.

Johnson is especially complimentary of the geological engineering department community.

“I did not just see these people in class or when we studied,” he said. “We were more than just ‘classmates.’ Many students outside the GE department often referred to us as a ‘clique’ or, in its loosest term, a ‘cult.’ We went to football games together. We traveled together. We went to the Square together. Some were roommates together. We are still friends with each other. And some are actually marrying each other.”