John H. Johnson: My Preparation, and Destiny

As an undergraduate student in the journalism program at Grambling State University of Louisiana in the late 1970s, I harbored a dream of completing my education, and one day working at Johnson Publishing Company (JPC) of Chicago, the home of EBONY, Jet and other noted African American-interest magazines. In fact, while I knew there was no getting around paying my dues and investing the work necessary to get there, in my young mind, I felt it was my destiny to achieve success, and ultimately to end my career there as a writer—and for a number of reasons.

My college roommate during freshman year often boasted that his mother was an EBONY employee, and I subscribed to, and voraciously read all of the magazines JPC published throughout my collegiate years, committing to memory the bylines and literary styles of every noted company writer, reporter and editor. Like countless black families in the U.S. and around the world, issues of Jet and EBONY magazines were a virtual fixture on the coffee table of our home growing up, because their pages were about the only place we ever saw positive, uplifting images of, and news stories about people who looked like us.

The first time I encountered late founder and publisher John H. Johnson, however, was in 1986 at a private reception for local African American media hosted on the 10th floor of his iconic Johnson Publishing Company headquarters building on south Michigan Ave. The after-hours event was convened to introduce a new premium spirits brand to journalists, and I was invited in my capacity then as business editor of the Chicago Defender newspaper. Johnson occasionally agreed to host affairs like these when there was the potential of advertising revenue in it for his publications.

All of the remarks and presentations had been made, and the evening was actually drawing to a close when in walked Mr. Johnson, donning a dark business suit—but with a serving tray in hand, cleaning up after guests. As attendees networked, he calmly busied himself picking up dirty cocktail glasses and hors d’oeuvres plates, and emptying ashtrays. I was astounded. I walked over, introduced myself and asked him why he, the multi-millionaire owner of the largest black business in the world, an advisor to presidents and builder of an historic skyscraper with a prestigious downtown Chicago address, would be doing housekeeping when it was certain that he had people for that. “Why not?” Johnson replied. “Somebody’s got to do it. It’s my building, so it might as well be me.”

This visual, and his grounded, matter-of-fact response cemented even further the determination in me that someday, somehow, I would work for him.

To that point, I had been out of journalism school for four years, and had applied to Johnson Publishing Company several times. Writer, photographer, illustrator or janitor; whatever way I could get in, it didn’t matter. I just wanted to work there. I’d even pretended to be an out-of-town tourist three times just to go along on the guided tour of the building, securing more internal editorial contact names, and then forwarded resumes and writing samples to each one for follow-up.

Sometimes, I went to the JPC building unannounced, hopeful that someone would simply take a few minutes to talk to me and give a young person some advice. Not having an appointment, each time I was sent away. Although black newspapers like The Chicago Defender, The Chicago Observer, The Citizen Newspaper Group and others hired me as a journalist for brief stints over those years, I was perpetually unfulfilled career wise, ofttimes hungry and sometimes all-but homeless, living from place to place. But I kept writing. JPC was still the objective; the premier choice of where I’d hoped to become an employee.

Later that year, Harold L. Washington was elected to his second term as Chicago’s first African American mayor, and I was tapped as a communications specialist. Or, in other words, one of his speechwriters. I proudly served in that capacity for about a year until Mayor Washington sadly died in office, the victim of a heart attack, and many of his most loyal staffers were summarily laid off. I was in that number.

Having worked for a man the caliber of Washington, I felt in my heart that there was no one else that I could possibly respect as much, and work for moving forward, but John H. Johnson. I mailed exactly one resume and cover letter to his company once again, volunteered to do some fundraising work with the local sickle cell disease association in the meantime, and waited. Where the faith came from to do only one thing, and to just trust and be patient, I don’t know. It just seemed like I was being led, and the correct action at the time.

Within 72 hours, I received a telephone call informing me that there was a job opening in public relations with Johnson Publishing for which I was being considered. I had interviews scheduled with the head of that department, Lydia J. Davis, and with Mr. Johnson himself, the following week. I was already beyond prepared. I knew the company inside and out; its history, the names of every division and line of business, key staffers and executives, revenues, office locations and functions and more. I had studied JPC so thoroughly, for so long, that I could recite it all like the back of my hand.

And I would need none of it.

When the day came, I was in and out of the building in under a half-hour. My preliminary interview with Ms. Davis lasted all of about 15 minutes, after which I was accompanied up to the ninth floor for the interview with Mr. Johnson. My time with him was less than five minutes. He walked in the door of the conference room smiling, greeted Lydia and myself, seated himself at the head of the table and quickly perused my resume. It intrigued me to witness that a man of his stature, after 45 years in business, still personally interviewed and hired each and every employee himself.

He asked me only one question: Why I worked for so many small black newspapers, and for such short periods of time. “Because they give you the opportunity to write, but pay so little that you basically have to work multiple jobs to eat and manage your bills,” I stated. “Well, we pay you what you’re worth here,” Mr. Johnson laughed. “You won’t need but one job from now on. How soon can you start?” Of course, I was available immediately, and said so. “See you at 9:00 a.m.,” he said, promptly exiting the room.

It had been a long, arduous five years of trying since graduation, but through perseverance, preparation, a great deal of underemployment and perspiration I’d finally gotten myself hired at Johnson Publishing Company. It was at once humbling, and an honor. No mentors had helped, and not one of my valued contacts inside the company had helped or even been encouraging. I’d done it all on my own, with God and the ancestors guiding my steps.

The job was a virtual writing incubator, and I was able to employ virtually all of my abilities, and then some. Under Lydia Davis’ able supervision, I was charged with writing Mr. Johnson’s personal and business correspondence, as well as a few of his speeches here and there. I also wrote copy daily for press materials, print ads and radio spots, and executed national publicity and promotion strategies for nearly all of the Johnson Publishing Company properties. This included EBONY, Jet and EM – EBONY MAN magazines, Fashion Fair Cosmetics, the EBONY Fashion Fair tour, Supreme Beauty Products, the “EBONY/Jet Showcase” and “American Black Achievement Awards” television productions, the JPC Book Division and our radio stations WJPC, WLNR and WLOU.

It was a privilege. I loved what I was doing, and who I was doing it for. It was not uncommon for me to work six-to-seven days per week, and countless late nights routinely. I further was responsible for coordinating his media interviews, and thus cultivated a close, trusting relationship with Mr. Johnson. He always told me that if I ever wanted to talk to him, to just give him five minutes’ notice and he would make himself available. He was “just John” to me, he said, but I called him Mr. Johnson like everyone else, or “Mr. J” whenever I wanted to rankle his subordinates who were perpetually jockeying for position with him.

One fall afternoon, after managing an interview session for Mr. Johnson with the local NBC-TV network affiliate station, the two of us were traveling down Michigan Ave. in his trademark blue Cadillac on our way back to the office when he turned to me, and said “You know Ron, your writing is much better than what you’re doing. What do you really want to do for my company?” I didn’t hesitate to answer. “I want to write for the magazines, Mr. Johnson.” He paused and thought for a moment, nodded, and said to expect to hear something from him soon.

The next day, my 30th birthday, I received a memorandum from Mr. Johnson in the interoffice mail. It was a missive directing the editors of EBONY MAN magazine, our men’s publication, to begin issuing me editorial assignments, and paying me for each and every submission. I have no way to confirm it, but senior people at the company then told me that I was the first employee ever permitted to essentially work for two JPC divisions at once, and be compensated by both. Less than a year later, I was transferred over to the magazine side full-time.

From that point on, I kept one foot in the PR realm, and the other firmly planted in journalism, successfully navigating both professions.

Over the next four years, I co-managed the editorial and production of the nation’s only internationally-circulated lifestyle publication dedicated to the needs, interests and aspirations of African American men. My work ultimately tripled the magazine’s circulation, and garnered me the 1991 Award for Outstanding Commentary from the Chicago Association of Black Journalists (now the National Association of Black Journalists-Chicago Chapter). I had set a goal, and earned an opportunity. John H. Johnson placed it in front of me at the time destiny dictated, and I seized it. There is no fate, but what we make.

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