Photos of Odell Johnson

The Minority Engineering Program Remembers the Legacy of:

Odell Johnson BSME '62 - A Purdue Success Story

Odell Johnson (a.k.a. "OJ") was born in 1939 in Lawton, Oklahoma, and raised in a working-class family with three brothers and one sister in South Bend, Indiana. As a young man, Odell was curious and industrious. He enjoyed playing and helping his step-dad run the family business. During his senior year in high school, in 1957, he led a school math project that changed his life. The challenge was to estimate the actual height of the large smoke stacks located at his high school. His team had the best mathematical equation to solve the problem. They won the challenge and were granted an opportunity to tour the College of Engineering at Notre Dame University. "It was on that day," Odell said, "that I decided to become an engineer, and Purdue was my first choice." At that time, hardly any of his peers had planned to attend college. His friends were doubtful that a "black kid" from their neighborhood would be admitted to Purdue and graduate as an engineer. But despite their disbelief, Odell applied and was accepted.

As an engineering student, Odell worked hard − often taking a full course load in addition to serving on the ROTC and working odd jobs on the weekends to make ends meet. During the first two years, he faced many challenges but managed to maintain a positive attitude. "It was hard, but I just had a deep belief that I could succeed if I really applied myself," he said. "On one occasion, I remember receiving the highest grade in my electrical engineering class. I set the curve. It was a huge confidence booster!" Odell graduated from Purdue University, in 1962, with a degree in Mechanical Engineering with a special focus on computer programming. His aptitude for computer programming later proved to be an important competency in the corporate world. 

Odell's first job was with General Motors (GM) in Detroit, Michigan. But not long after he started, he had to complete a two-year tour of duty in the Army as a 2nd Lieutenant; a requirement of the Purdue ROTC program that he joined as an undergrad. After returning from a rewarding experience in the Armed Services, Odell moved to Seattle to work for Boeing in 1967 as a Research Engineer. He worked in the Test Flight Systems and Computing division and managed initiatives on the 747 Airbus and Supersonic Transport programs. Odell later returned to GM in 1969 as a Senior Project Engineer. "I made it a habit to take on more responsibilities whenever I could. I wanted to stand out," he recalled. "I was constantly looking for problems that I could solve."

Odell found many ways to apply his computer programming and project management skills to a broad range of engineering and operational problems, which helped him build a solid reputation with senior executives. He played an important role in computerizing the drafting and design processes for flywheel engine components, fuel line planning, and cross-divisional financial accounting − all of which resulted in significant cost savings for the company. These early wins paid off. GM invited Odell to participate in a management training program which allowed him to earn his MBA from Michigan State in 1979.

During his tenure at GM, Odell managed the Test Vehicle program, published numerous technical white papers, and developed engineering business system designs for vehicle programs in the Chevrolet, Cadillac, Pontiac, Detroit Diesel Engine and GM Truck divisions. He also was very active in supporting campus recruiting activities, mentoring young engineers, and establishing social activities for employees like the "GM Soul Picnic."

The advice he had for Purdue's Engineering students was simple:
"Stay open-minded! You never know where life-changing opportunities will come from."
"Don't give up!!
"Engineering is a challenging but rewarding field of study."
"Avoid sacrificing long-term goals, for short-term indulgences.
"Stay focused."
"Take advantage of available resources and build mentoring relationships if possible."
"Most importantly − believe in yourself, even when others doubt you. If I could do it in 1962, you can do it now!"

After more than 30 years, Odell retired from GM in 2001. He lived in Detroit, spent time with his wife Marvis, children, grandchildren, and maintained an active lifestyle by volunteering at his church and keeping up with the latest technology trends up until the time of his passing (June 2020). 

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