Even as a youth, Wendell Norman Johnson was a man who kept his eye on the prize. As he filled out an application to attend Boston Latin School, he noticed a boy staring at him. "I had some pencils in front of me," Mr. Johnson said in a story published in the Globe in 2000. "And he finally leaned over and asked, 'Darky, can I borrow a pencil, please?' "
Mr. Johnson handed the boy a pencil and got back to business.
"The matter was to get into Latin School, not to jump up and take offense," Mr. Johnson said. "Besides, the kid said please and thank you."
Mr. Johnson went on to become a rear admiral in the Navy and later a dean of students at Boston University.
A memorial service will be held at BU on May 14 for Mr. Johnson, a former resident of Brookline, who died of pancreatic cancer Dec. 7 in Scottsdale., Ariz. He was 72.
Mr. Johnson brought a wealth of experience from his Navy career to his job at Boston University.
"He was someone who believed in his military experience and knowledge -- the benefits of discipline and duty -- and incorporated them into campus life, but not in an overbearing way," Katherine Kennedy , director of the Howard Thurman Center at the university, said recently.
The son of immigrants from Barbados, Mr. Johnson grew up in Roxbury. His father, Oscar, a certified public accountant in his homeland, got a job hauling meat in Boston and then joined the merchant marine. His mother, Ida, was an elevator operator at Jordan Marsh.
Mr. Johnson attended the Dudley School in Roxbury.
After graduating from Boston Latin, Mr. Johnson attended New England School of Pharmacy. He was drafted by the Army in 1955, but chose to enlist in the Navy because he enjoyed the trips he'd taken on ships with his father.
He frequently confronted racism when he ventured outside boot camp in Perryville, Md., he said. One day, a waiter in a restaurant near the base refused to serve him.
"My answer was, 'Take a look around this place -- it looks like they're all sailors to me, and if you refuse to serve me I'll go back to the base and say you're not serving sailors,' " Mr. Johnson recalled in an interview published in Bostonia , the Boston University alumni magazine, in 2002.
"Most blacks in the Navy were in service functions when I joined, such as laundrymen, cooks, and stewards," he said in 2002. "But as the Navy realized we had something more to offer, blacks were allowed to attend school and earn some of the critical ratings, such as sonar men, radiomen, and machinists.
"The black officers I knew and some of the fellows coming out of the Naval Academy were getting better assignments. But it was a hard nut to crack when you think of the history of the US Navy and how long it was truly segregated."
In the 1960s he was a lieutenant commander on the destroyer USS Ingraham.
By the early 1970s, he was in Washington, working on Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr.'s initiatives to defuse racial discord in the service and recruit more minority sailors.
After serving in Vietnam, he was promoted to rear admiral in 1983 and became the commander of a destroyer squadron.
The same year, at the age of 49, he was diagnosed with colon cancer. Two years later a Naval surgeon told him could expect to live for six months. His cancer was treated aggressively and his prognosis improved, but because of the extent of surgery required he could no longer command at sea.
In 1987, he became commander of the Navy base at Charleston, S.C., the Navy's third largest homeport. But he missed life at sea because, as he said in 2002, he was "a ship handler."
During a trip to Boston University to speak with ROTC members in 1989, he was encouraged to apply for the position of dean of students, which he held until he retired in 2003.
His daughter said his move from the military to academia was a smooth one.
"The two are not dissimilar," she said. "He always enjoyed working with young people. Dormitories are similar to barracks, and his role as dean of students had a disciplinary aspect to it."
As dean of students he oversaw 350 student organizations, campus residences, and recreational activities. Mr. Johnson also was a vice president of the institution.
In 1998 he organized BU's Residential Charter School in Granby for students who had problems in conventional settings. The school closed two years later.
"He was someone who was deeply respected, but very approachable. He stopped to chat with everyone from the students to the groundskeepers and maintenances staff," Kennedy said.
Mr. Johnson was also a true romantic.
"He loved to play the piano," said his daughter, Laura Hairston of Scottsdale, Ariz.
"Every time my mother was in the room, or even if she just passed by the doorway, he played 'If I loved you' from the musical 'Carousel.' "
In addition to his daughter, he leaves his wife, Helen (Underwood); a son, Norman Jr. of San Jose, Calif.; a daughter, Lois Johnson of Alexandria, Va.; and five grandchildren.
Burial will be at 11 a.m. Friday in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. A memorial service will be May 14 at 11 a.m. in Marsh Chapel at Boston University.