Since its founding in 1775, the Army Corps of Engineers has assisted some of the most significant building projects in American history—from the fortifications at Bunker Hill to the Washington Monument to the Panama Canal and the Bonneville Dam. The Corps’ motto is Essayons, which is French for “Let Us Try.”
That resonates with Sterling Johnson OPC ’78, who has spent the last 31 years working for the Corps on projects close to home and around the world. Since 2002, Johnson has been a strategic planner, now in international interagency environmental support, which means that he specializes in environmental projects such as beach fill along the Jersey shore, helping to turn a freshwater marsh into a saltwater marsh, or dredging the Schuylkill River. Often Johnson and his team assist other governmental agencies on their projects, such as cleaning up environmental contamination on Staten Island for the National Park Service. Earlier this year, he was asked to help the Department of Health and Human Services build distribution facilities for Covid-19 vaccines as part of Operation Warp Speed. Also as a response to the pandemic, he was project manager for construction of alternate care facilities that the Corps built for Trenton, East Orange and New Bergen County in New Jersey.
Although Johnson is based in the Corps’ Philadelphia district, which includes everything within the Delaware River watershed, he has worked on special assignments for the Corps in other parts of the United States and overseas. He spent time in Germany and Belgium, working on a project with NATO, and even went to Afghanistan in 2010 to help build roads and hospitals with the Afghan army.
One does not have to be a soldier to work for the Army Corps of Engineers, and indeed Johnson has never served in the military. He sees his job as providing technical know-how and is proud that his work is strictly apolitical. “We try to let the science and the engineering guide us,” Johnson explained. “As a project manager, I’m constantly telling my team that we are supposed to be an honest broker. Our job is to analyze the facts, come up with a conclusion, and then give it to the decision makers so they can decide what to do.”
After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a bachelor’s degree in material science and engineering, Johnson joked that he assumed he would go to work for NASA. But a cousin who worked for the Corps told him that they were looking for bright young engineers, and Johnson decided to apply. “I grew to like the position,” Johnson said. “I had a boss who gave me interesting assignments and knew enough to leave me alone.” Thirty years later, he is still there. In 2004, he earned a master’s in administration from Central Michigan University.
Johnson has shown a similar long-term dedication to Penn Charter. Asked for some of his favorite memories, Johnson laughed. “Man, how much time do you have? Some of my best friends I met as a 15-year old at Penn Charter, and they’re still my good friends.”
His favorite teachers included science legends Thomas “Doc” Katman and Alice Davis, which is not surprising for a future engineer, but Johnson adds longtime English teacher John Schug, as well, who instilled a love of literature. Johnson was also four-sport athlete, who played football, basketball, baseball and ran track. He said he appreciated PC’s emphasis on excellence in athletics as well as academics and the arts. “There are certain things you learn on the field of play that you can’t learn in the classroom, such as resilience and teamwork,” he explained. “You learn that hard work yields results.”
Johnson is a longtime class agent and has served in numerous roles for the Alumni Society, as well. PC has changed in many ways since Johnson was a student back in the mid-’70s, and he said that he appreciates efforts to increase the school’s diversity.
“It’s a work in progress,” Johnson reasoned. “But the first step toward resolving any issue is addressing it head-on. I think PC has always been very honest with itself. As the student body has grown, there are new types of diversity to consider in addition to race, such as diversity in sexuality, socioeconomic background and diversity of thought. But the school is heading in the right direction. I think PC is willing to do the hard work.”