George W. Johnson’s leadership as GMU’s president from 1978 to 1996 spurred rapid growth of the university’s campus, its student body and its ambition. He is seen here in 1978. (Courtesy of George Mason University)

George W. Johnson, who as president of George Mason University helped transform a commuter college in a bedroom community into a burgeoning center for innovation and research with a national profile, died May 30 at Inova Fairfax Hospital. He was 88.

He had complications from a fall, said his son, William Garth Johnson.

Born the only son of a mechanic and part-time fireman in North Dakota during the Great Depression, Dr. Johnson saw education as his escape from the clutches of poverty. His experiences led him to become an evangelist for the power of knowledge to help people rise above hardship.

Dr. Johnson’s aggressive leadership as GMU’s president from 1978 to 1996 spurred rapid growth of the university’s campus, its student body and its ambition. Brazen and progressive, Dr. Johnson was known to use his imposing 6-foot-6 frame to overcome bureaucratic interference.

“We had Harvard aspirations,” he once said, “and a community college attitude.”

George W. Johnson, former president of George Mason University, grew up during the Great Depression and saw education as his escape from poverty. (Courtesy of George Mason University)

During Dr. Johnson’s tenure, he saw enrollment double to more than 20,000 students. The university opened a law school; began granting doctoral degrees; established satellite campuses in Arlington and Prince William counties; constructed a 10,000-seat athletics arena, student union, classroom buildings, library, performing arts center and new dormitories.

In the end, Dr. Johnson’s impact extended far beyond Mason’s sleepy suburban Fairfax County presence. Intangibly, he brought prestige to campus, courting corporate donors to endow chairs that allowed him to recruit top talent, including civil rights champion Roger Wilkins, whose editorials for The Washington Post were part of the paper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Watergate coverage, and Nobel laureate James Buchanan, who won the 1986 prize in economics.

Dr. Johnson also fostered close ties to executives who did business in the Washington region, seeking to emulate Stanford’s embrace of the technology industry and turn Fairfax into a Silicon Valley of the east. A bull session he organized with leaders from IBM, Xerox and AT&T led him to create five new master’s programs as well as a doctorate in information technology, according to a GMU history.

“He imagined a new kind of university, one that relied on innovation, experimentation, partnerships with regional business and community leaders, and technology,” George Mason president Angel Cabrera said in a statement. “By all accounts, he succeeded.”

The university Dr. Johnson left in 1996 barely resembled the one that had opened its doors in 1957 with 17 students crammed in an abandoned elementary school with leaky water pipes. When Dr. Johnson gave the commencement speech in 1996, there were 4,867 graduates seated before him — then the largest class in school history. Today, George Mason, with 34,000 students, is the largest public research university in Virginia.

George William Johnson Jr. was born July 5, 1928, in Jamestown, N.D. He earned a scholarship to the local Jamestown College. After graduation, he served with the Army during the Korean War.

An outstanding baseball pitcher, he played for an Army exhibition team and severely injured his shoulder in a collision with a runner while covering first base. The compound facture ended his baseball career but also kept him from deploying to combat as a forward observer for his artillery unit.

He used the G.I. Bill to study at Columbia University in the 1950s. He received master’s and doctoral degrees in English, with a dissertation on Stephen Crane.

During a teaching stint at the University of Missouri, he met the former Joanne Ferris. They married in June 1955. Besides his wife, of Fairfax Station, survivors include two sons, William Garth Johnson of Fairfax Station and Robert Craig Johnson of Denver; and four grandchildren.

Dr. Johnson later taught in the English at Temple University in Philadelphia and chaired the department before he received a letter from a school he had never heard about before: George Mason. Assuming the helm in 1978, he quickly set an audacious vision for the school that had become independent from the University of Virginia only seven years earlier.

“This institution was so far behind it was unbelievable,” Dr. Johnson said in an oral history of the school. “The facade looked normal. But beneath that thin veneer, it was incredibly rudimentary. That’s the great advantage. That’s what we sold. We sold nothing: We’re malleable, plastic, come in join us.”

He reached out to local business leaders seeking students who could benefit their companies.

“We couldn’t afford big-time biology, physics, chemistry, so it was going to have to be computer science, information science,” Dr. Johnson said in the oral history. “As one of the CEOs said, ‘I’d like to help this little rudimentary institution but I deal with Stanford and MIT.’ Five years later, he became the dean of our business school.”

Dr. Johnson was proud of his accomplishments at George Mason, but with a touch of self-effacing humor he attributed much of his success to luck.

“The university had been held back so long, so far, it was just ready to pop,” he said in the oral history. “I said … that even if an idiot had come here, this place would have taken off. I said it once too often and noticed all the senior faculty were going, ‘Well, he got one thing right.’ ”