The automobile age was in its infancy when Earl F. "Coxey" Johnson came to Lehigh to study civil engineering. By the time of his death, however, the automobile had transformed the country and Johnson helped to make it possible. After earning his degree in 1907, the Moosic, Pennsylvania native became an apprentice engineer with McClintic-Marshall Construction Company and moved to the E.I. du Pont de Meumours & Company in 1909. Johnson joined General Motors Corporation as special assistant to the vice president in 1919, retiring from the company in 1929, but returned to GM as a vice president in 1942 to help direct its wartime production. He retired again in 1946 and was named director of the company. Before returning to GM, Johnson served as head of the Ordnance Branch of the War Production Board from 1940 to 1942.
After serving as president of the Alumni Association in 1931, Johnson joined Lehigh's Board of Trustees and remained on it until his death in 1958. As chair of the endowment committee from 1936 to 1949, he saw the university's endowment nearly double. A major benefactor of Lehigh, he provided the funding for Johnson Hall, dedicated in 1955. He and his wife, Mary Louise also established some of the first life-income trusts to benefit the university's unrestricted endowment. Johnson was the recipient of the New York Lehigh Club's prestigious L-in-Life Award. In 1944, Lehigh bestowed upon Johnson an honorary doctorate of engineering.