October 20, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Deep in the labyrinthine Arts and Sciences Hall at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, Dr. Bruce Johansen sits at his desk wearing a rather de rigueur outfit for him—a maroon T-shirt with red and blue basketball shorts. His ever-present jewelry is more subdued than usual. He has several rings on his hands and a simple, steampunk-esque earring in his right ear.

Johansen’s signature style is well-known around UNO. He tells his students the reason he started wearing so much jewelry was to distract from his pronounced stutter, which was also the impetus for his writing career.

The 67-year-old professor of communications and Native American studies is also familiar for another reason. Tales of seeing him riding his bike down Dodge Street on his way to campus at 5 in the morning are often repeated among his students in an almost folklore- like manner.

While they might think Johansen rides his bike to work every morning because he’s just that into it, that’s not exactly the case. In fact, he says it’s more out of necessity than a simple love of cycling.

In October 2001, he had an epileptic seizure while driving in Indiana and went off the road. Since then, his wife, Pat, has made it clear she’d rather he not drive. And so, he bikes. Or walks. Or sometimes in extreme weather, she’ll give him a ride in their Ford Explorer.

While biking to work started out of necessity—he says the parking situation on campus was another big incentive—he still enjoys biking for fun. From time to time, he’ll ride downtown or out to Westroads Mall. He says his longest Omaha ride was about 30 miles round trip. But he’s definitely biked farther.

“One day in Seattle,” he says, while hauling out a map of the city he keeps in his office, “I did a circuit of Lake Washington, which is about 60 miles.” He draws his finger around the map, outlining the route he took.

His desire to always be moving might stem from the fact that he grew up in a Coast Guard family. “You’d be surprised where the United States has Coast Guard bases—Philippine islands, Newfoundland in Canada, Puerto Rico…I grew up all over the world.”

Surprisingly, he says his favorite form of exercise isn’t cycling but swimming. He says not only is it good exercise, but also quite relaxing. According to an article in the summer issue of UNO Magazine, he was even a high school state swimming medalist in his adopted home state of Washington. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to see him swimming laps—while wearing his signature jewelry—on campus at the HPER Building pool.

“They added it up,” he says, “and all of the time I spent in the HPER pool came up to a year…from an hour at a time or so. I had swum half the world’s diameter overall. It adds up over 30 years.”

Professor Hugh Reilly, director of the school of communication, has known Johansen for at least 25 years. In fact, Reilly considers him a mentor. The two share a common interest in Native American studies, and Johansen was instrumental in helping Reilly develop his thesis, which evolved into Reilly’s first book on the subject.

He thinks it’s a bit unusual for someone to be interested in Johansen’s physicality. He says the professor is chiefly known among his colleagues for his mental capacity and prodigious writing.

“He’s very mentally active…he manages to write two books a year. Who does that?” he asks.

Reilly says he’s sure he couldn’t outswim Johansen. “But I can take him in basketball,” he says. Which makes sense. The 6-foot-2-inch Reilly is half a foot taller.

It turns out, Johansen may have found a new hobby. On a recent trip to India, he and other guests were invited on stage to dance with the Kala Darshini dance troupe. When he tried to decline the invitation, saying he hadn’t ever really danced, he was told, “This is India. We dance here.”

As they were dancing, he was engaged by one of their principal dancers. “I really got into it and completely forgot there was a huge audience there.” He says his partner seemed pretty surprised by his energy and endurance, and at the end of the dance, he was hoisted into the air, spun around, and kissed on the cheek while everybody cheered. He said he felt like a rock star.

So maybe dancing will be his new outlet for all that energy?

“I liked it,” he says. “But see, here I have a very well-cultivated image as a stale old fart.”

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This article was printed in the November/December 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine.