Auburn Alumni Association honors lifetime achievers

AUBURN – The Auburn Alumni Association has selected four Auburn University graduates as recipients of its highest honor, the Lifetime Achievement Award. They are: shipping magnate Robert Kenneth Johns ’57 of Summit, N.J.; insurance mogul J. Smith Lanier II ’49 of Lanett; rocket scientist Gerald W. Smith ’61 of Huntsville; and retired astronaut Kathryn C. Thornton ’74 of Charlottesville, Va.

A Mobile native and former Tigers lineman, Johns retired as president and chief operating officer of Sea-Land Service Inc., which ultimately developed, engineered and implemented containerized ocean shipping, revolutionizing world trade. He subsequently founded The Hampshire Management Group Inc., is an inductee of the International Maritime Hall of Fame and in 2006 received Auburn’s Walter Gilbert Award for former athletes who have distinguished themselves through achievements after graduation.

Lanier joined the family insurance business immediately after college and retired as chairman of J. Smith Lanier & Co., one of the oldest and largest independent insurance brokerage firms in the country. Lanier was the first dean’s advisory board chair for Auburn’s College of Human Sciences and is a member of Auburn’s 1856 Society. He and wife Betty are past recipients of the College of Human Sciences’ International Quality of Life Award.

Born in Albertville, Smith led efforts to design, build, qualify and fly the redesigned solid-rocket motor for NASA following the Challenger accident in 1986. He subsequently served as deputy director and acting director of NASA’s John C. Stennis Space Center, the federal government’s largest rocket engine test facility. Upon retirement, Smith directed enterprise strategy and research operations at the Georgia Tech Research Institute, served as president of the Thiokol Corp. in Utah and worked as executive director of the National Space Science and Technology Center in Huntsville.

A native of Montgomery, Thornton began her career as a physicist at the U.S. Army Foreign Science and Technology Center in Charlottesville, Va. She became a NASA astronaut in 1985, flying on the Discovery, the Columbia and twice on the Endeavour. She now serves as associate dean for graduate programs and engineering at the University of Virginia.

Johns, Lanier, Smith and Thornton will be honored at a dinner and induction ceremony March 6 at The Hotel at Auburn University and Dixon Conference Center in Auburn.

(Contributed by Betsy Robertson.)

Contact: Debbie Shaw, (334) 844-1134 (, or
Mike Clardy, (334) 844-9999 (