After the merger of the Wellington School, Eaton School, and North Cross Country Day School, was completed in 1961, a headmaster was needed to lead the new academic entity. For Emerson Johnson III, the thought of becoming a headmaster at age 29 seemed a daunting task. Even though the Highland County native had experience as the assistant headmaster at Norfolk Academy, an undergraduate degree from Hampden-Sydney College, and a master’s degree in mathematics and education from the University of North Carolina, he remembers getting cold feet when he was hired. “After I agreed to come, I took the train up from Norfolk and the further I got, the more I realized I couldn’t do it.” Thomas Slack met him at the railway station, and Emerson said, “Mr. Slack, I've changed my mind. I'm not coming.” The two sat in Mr. Slack’s Mercedes in front of the First Presbyterian Church on Jefferson Street for three hours. “He concluded that I would see it through,” Mr. Johnson recalled.
Emerson Johnson’s tenure oversaw the construction of buildings, the development of athletic fields, and he is credited for starting traditions like the senior speech and Field Day. Mr. Johnson ended up getting the school into the right frame of mind for the future.