Growing up in rural Collins, Miss., the youngest of Leo and Odell Johnson’s 10 children, Jeff Johnson was taught the importance of three things: church, school, and work.
Though Johnson – called Wayne, his middle name, by his family – lived on a farm in a home with no running water or electricity, his parents and grandparents taught him and his siblings to carry themselves with pride.
“I got my first job at age 8,” Johnson says. “I was mowing lawns and gardening. All of us kids were peddling our vegetables in town – people knew that the Johnson children would be on Main Street every Saturday morning.”
Johnson was born in 1963, just as the Civil Rights movement was beginning to take shape. He attended a community school for blacks during his elementary grades, but Collins Middle School was integrated.
His teachers made sure he and his classmates were ready for the change. Mrs. Evelyn McCann, his English teacher, saw that Johnson and his classmates had value. “She told us to go out and make a difference,” he says.
Johnson met his wife, Peggy, when he was in the eighth grade. Peggy was in sixth grade. In high school, Johnson was a drum major for the band and played the baritone.
Another influence in his life was Mrs. Jessie Allred, a former teacher of white students who encouraged Johnson to go to college. His mother cleaned Mrs. Allred’s house, and Johnson worked in her yard to earn extra money.
When he graduated from high school, Johnson wanted to earn a college degree. He would be the first in his family to do so.
“I wanted a college degree for my family, my church, and for my community,” he says. He enrolled at Jones County Junior College in Ellisville, Miss.
And then he made a big mistake. Well, it was a big mistake in the eyes of his daddy. He ran for student body president the second semester of his freshman year.
“The college’s dean of students, Mr. Tim Waldrup, convinced me to run, so I ran,” Johnson says. “My campaign slogan was ‘Keep the JJ in JCJC.’”
He won the election. But then he learned that the student body president had to live on campus. He was living at home and riding the bus or with a friend to get to school each day. His family couldn’t afford room and board.
“Mrs. Allred went to my defense,” he remembers. “Daddy struggled, but he had to let me be who I was. I had to promise him that I would come home on weekends to get my chores done.” Johnson thrived in the college atmosphere. After completing junior college, he enrolled at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, where he became a resident assistant, for which he was given free room and board. He got a scholarship. He worked at a clothing store. He became a part of Southern Miss’s student ambassadors, Southern Style. He impressed enough visiting dignitaries with his knowledge and friendliness that the USM president, Dr. Aubrey K. Lucas, hired Johnson to help the university recruit high-ability students. For this, he was paid $1,000 a month and given free room, board, tuition, and access to a university vehicle.
Thus began Johnson’s higher education pilgrimage.
A career in alumni relations
Johnson married Peggy, a USM junior, on Aug. 3, 1985, the last semester of his senior year. After graduation from Southern Miss in 1986 he was hired as an admissions counselor.
The young couple lived in faculty housing. In October 1986 they had their first child, Krystal. In May 1989 a son, Kristopher, was born.
Johnson’s career path expanded. He became involved in government relations, served as an adviser to the university’s student alumni program, and was named an assistant to the executive director of alumni relations. He saw his future: a future in higher education that he didn’t even know was possible.
When he was attending a national student alumni conference in Kansas, then-alumni director for the University of Kansas Fred Williams took a shine to the young man from Mississippi. Six months later, Johnson was working for Williams as director of alumni membership. He spent five-plus years in Lawrence, moving up as the alumni association’s director of external affairs and then a vice president. He earned a master’s degree at the same time.
He moved his family again, this time to the University of Illinois, where he became the alumni director for the Urbana-Champaign campus.
And then, following Jim Hopson’s retirement in 1999, Johnson was recruited to work for Iowa State.
Hopson (’69 education) had been executive director of the ISU Alumni Association for 20 years. Johnson, and all of his Midwestern alumni relations colleagues, knew and respected Hopson. Johnson also knew about Iowa State.
“We [national colleagues] all knew Iowa Staters and about Iowa State,” he said. “I had never seen a nicer, more pride-laden, good crop of people.”
But the kids were in fifth and seventh grade, and Johnson didn’t want to uproot them. And after having been at Illinois for just three years, Johnson felt strongly that they were in a good situation there. Still, he agreed to an interview in Ames.
After he was offered the job, he asked the committee if he could bring his family to Ames first before giving them an answer. The committee and campus leadership granted Johnson his request.
It was love at first sight – for everyone.
“I already knew the people of Iowa and the Alumni Association’s quality, so it was a no-brainer. But I hadn’t seen the central part of campus. It was the most gorgeous place I’d ever seen.”
While Johnson was back in Illinois completing the transition process after accepting the position, Peggy and the kids moved to Ames early. Within a week, Kristopher had already invited a newfound friend over for a slumber party. He was also loaned a bike, and the family was invited to attend the Iowa State Fair. The kids felt safe in Iowa. They even approached Johnson with a list of all the reasons they were happy they moved to Ames.
It was unanimous. In September 1999, Johnson started his duties with the ISU Alumni Association, and the Johnson family officially became a Cyclone family. Iowa has lived up to their expectations, he says. It fits their values. It’s been a great place to work and to raise their kids.
Johnson has taken a page from his daddy’s playbook; he and Peggy have raised their children using the “rule of 21.”
“From zero to age 7, parents need to get in their kids’ heads,” Johnson explained. “You teach them right from wrong, yes from no. You help them build their character. From age 8-14 you get in their face. This is where you help them build their communication skills by allowing them to express why they are making the decisions they are making. From age 15-21 you get out of the way. This is when they learn that their decisions have consequences. At the end of this process, parents have hopefully achieved the most important thing – they have instilled in their children a conscience.”
The Johnsons have implanted a strong work ethic in their kids; they’ve made faith and education key priorities in their lives. Krystal has a 2014 child, adult, and family services degree from Iowa State, and Kristopher graduated from the University of Kansas in 2013 with a degree in sociology. The apple, it seems, doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Reaping the harvest
It’s been 16 years now. Johnson has achieved much of what he set out to do at Iowa State. He’s strengthened the Alumni Association’s visibility. He’s achieved Jim Hopson’s dream of building an alumni center. He’s launched new programs. He’s become the face and voice of the Alumni Association and a central figure in Iowa State’s outreach and engagement arsenal.
“There’s always plowing and planting and harvesting in everything you do,” Johnson says. “Jim did a damn good job of plowing and planting at the ISU Alumni Association. I got to come in and tend those plantings and ultimately do some harvesting.”
At Iowa State, Johnson has fulfilled another of his lifelong goals: He earned a PhD in 2014. Even though he admits he didn’t have time for classes or the grueling work of writing a dissertation, it was important to him to do it. He really wanted a degree from Iowa State – his newfound alma mater.
“No one in my family has a terminal degree,” he said. “I’m on a college campus. The only thing standing in my way was time. I just had to figure out a way to do it.”
The completion of his degree was sidelined twice: once because of his own health scare, the other because of Peggy’s. Life takes crazy turns, he says.
The Johnsons were on vacation in southern California in 2012 when Peggy began to experience severe headaches and alarming changes in her vision. She was rushed to the hospital while they were visiting a colleague on the UCLA campus, and she underwent emergency surgery for a brain aneurysm. She spent 32 days in intensive care.
Today, Peggy’s health is excellent. But Johnson was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2013, and although the surgery was successful, the cancer has returned. He’s currently preparing to undergo radiation treatment.
Coming full circle
A lot of years have gone by since young Wayne tended yards and pumped gas with his grandpa at a local gas station. Johnson watched and learned from his father and his father’s father. Back then, he says, everyone in town knew whose kid you were.
They’d say, “That’s Leo’s boy.”
“Daddy wanted these little black children growing up in the South to know that there are things you can control. He wanted to craft a lifestyle for his children. Being Leo and Odell’s son…their standards were so high.”
Johnson is a grandfather himself now. Tony Wayne Martin was born July 12 to daughter Krystal and her husband, Cole, a 2010 industrial engineering graduate of Iowa State.
Johnson says that while it may seem like he’s settled in his new role as the Russ and Lora Talbot ISU Alumni Association Endowed President and Chief Executive Officer – and he’s as proud as he can be to have earned this first-in-the-nation status – he doesn’t feel a sense of completion yet. He still has goals he’d like to accomplish. He’d like to expand the Alumni Center. See the Association’s membership hit 60,000 paid members. Improve the organization’s financial health. Have the Alumni Association become a bigger player in Iowa State’s future.
And, personally, he thinks he’d someday like to become president of a community college or work on the campus of a historically black university. He’d like to give back to students what he was given so many years ago: self-confidence.
“My work is not yet done.”