July 10, 2018 McRae Retires and Leaves a Legacy of Leadership, Passion

Color headshot of John McRae

After giving more than a half-century to the education of students and the practice of architecture, an icon has retired.  John McRae, a professor in the best sense, a fellow in the profession, a visionary architect, a compassionate artist and a fine man, retired from full-time teaching on June 30.

51 Years Ago

It was a sunny day in Florida in 1967 when John McRae first entered a college classroom to teach students about architecture.  There at the University of Florida, McRae taught for 20 years, becoming a professor in 1980.  In addition to teaching, he also served as assistant/associate dean, acting chair and chair of the School of Architecture and chair of the School of Interior Design.

In 1972, McRae co-founded the UF Preservation Institute in Nantucket, MA, now one of the nation’s oldest, continually operating historic preservation field schools.  And while teaching, McRae also managed an architecture practice from 1971-1987.

But the classroom and students always called him back.

From the University of Florida, McRae and Sharon, his beloved wife, left for Mississippi State University in 1987, so he could lead the School of Architecture and so she could teach elementary school.

He served as dean for 14 years, during which time he also served a year as president of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture and was elevated to Fellow in the AIA.

A Change in Direction

Then in 2001, McRae took his expansive knowledge and experience down a different path.  That year, he was hired as vice president for education and training for RTKL Associates Inc., an architectural/design services firm with offices worldwide, where he developed a comprehensive program of education and professional development and enrichment.  Following that, he served as senior director for grants and development for the American Institute of Architects, where he oversaw the AIA’s research agenda and secured corporate sponsorships.

Home to Knoxville and Back to Students

In 2005, students called again, and John and Sharon made the move to Knoxville.  As dean of the UT College of Architecture and Design, McRae helped establish the School of Landscape Architecture and contributed to the School of Architecture being recognized in the Top 20 in the country.


Six years later, he returned again to the classroom, taking with him his passion for doing good for others.  He established the Haiti Studio and worked with other UT entities on the Appalachia Project.  Through these worthwhile projects, McRae led students to realize need in the world and use their design acumen to address it.

“While I have thoroughly valued working with my colleagues over the years, my primary joy has been the students, at three universities,” McRae said in his retirement announcement.

John and Sharon, who sadly passed away in 2017, raised their children in “university towns,” as McRae calls them, and brought light and expression and authenticity to every place they lived and to everyone they met.

A Most Outstanding Man

Those who know John McRae would describe him as selfless.  Indeed, he gave innumerable hours to sponsor many architects to be elevated to Fellows in the AIA and used design to serve those in need.

He would be described as highly respected, giving close to 70 presentations and workshops and participating on 18 award juries for the AIA.

He would be described as passionate, clearly evident in his art.  McRae paints, creates ceramic sculptures and writes and illustrates children’s books to wide acclaim.

He is known to be curious, as his research and work in gerontology, K-12 environmental education and architectural education reveal.

But perhaps the best and truest accolade came in 1964, when at the University of Texas, a young student named John McRae was voted “Most Outstanding Man.”

To our most outstanding man, we say, “Thank you, John.  Our lives and careers are immeasurably better because of your presence in them.”


We salute John McRae

Former students, colleagues, professionals and friends share their thoughts about John McRae as we celebrate his retirement from full-time teaching.  Check back regularly to enjoy more memories, well wishes and comments as they are received.

John has made the College of Architecture and Design a better place simply because of his presence.  He elevated the college’s research and community engagement profile and helped students connect building performance and partnerships through design/build.  On a personal level, I’m thankful for his mentorship and friendship.  John is a man of integrity, and we thank him for his leadership as dean as well as his thoughtful teaching.

-Scott Poole, Dean, College of Architecture and Design


John is an enthusiastic professor with strong values and a passion to help those in need. He knows how to inspire students to serve others and work hard. I have thoroughly enjoyed the time spent in his classes and working alongside him with students in the Appalachia class.

-Mike Stone, AIA, LEED AP BD+C


John and I had the privilege of working together on UT projects concerning the Appalachian region.  John showed he was not only a gifted Professor but a true inspiration to the students and their individual projects.  Watching him work alongside the students and myself gave me a renewed appreciation for the education process.  John was even taught a thing or two about the construction process.

-Marv House, Chairman, Merit Construction, Inc.


I worked with John on the Appalachian Project Water Kiosk and witnessed the epitome of professor.  John is able to rally troops, convey his true love for them, and return that love tenfold.  Working side-by-side, I enjoyed playing my part in the engineer vs. architect battle of wits – of which I could never win as John is just too kind to really dig deep!

If I could add one memory, as we sat at Red Bird Mission, John asks one of the students to start strumming a tune, and John starts belting out “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road”!! Much to my delight, this is an awful, retched song – name says it all – and John was grinning ear to ear while we sat around the campfire. In that moment, you see the joy he has surrounding himself with the youth that he is training to take over the architectural world! What a great experience!

-Jennifer Retherford, Structural Engineer, Lecturer, UT Dept. of Civil & Environmental Engineering


If you’d like to send a brief comment, please send it to Amanda Johnson.