Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Paul Johnson–Farewell to a Perfect, Imperfect Mentor

The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves. - Steven Spielberg

Do the right thing, the right way, right now. – Paul Johnson

On Canadian Thanksgiving Day, October 12, 2015, I was heartbroken to learn of the passing of Paul Johnson, a leading businessman and philanthropist, in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

Paul, or PJ to those of us who knew him, was much more to me than just a businessman.  He was the first business mentor I had in my long career and as news of his death sank in, my thoughts tumbled back to the impact this man had on my Life.

As an impressionable young lad of 17 in 1983, I first entered the IT world as a programmer / analyst working for PJ on a new project he was dreaming of. He intended to build Canada’s first PC-based insurance system and I was selected to be developer (later architect) #1.  While everyone told PJ that such technology was a passing fad, the visionary that was PJ saw past the naysayers and with his usual heightened sense of vision and doggedness, he was determined to make it work.

It was an incredible undertaking.  Many younger people in the IT field today wouldn’t know what it is like to write computer systems that fit on SSSD (single-sided, single density) floppy disks with a capacity of 256K, make their own printer cables using manufacturer-provided pin-out diagrams or write a printer driver in assembler for every new printer that arrived.  But PJ was undeterred despite the unproven, immature technology and his vision of a PC-based insurance system, codenamed Automate and then Max, eventually rolled out on 8 single-sided, double-density floppies.

While PJ was at least a foot shorter than the 17-year-old that he hired, he was larger than Life.  On my first day on the job, I heard this announcement over the PA System:

Good morning to the good dependable people of Johnson Insurance.  Please observe the quiet hour between 8am and 9am and review your reminders for today’s important activities.  Thank-you.

It was Quiet Hour, PJ’s recognition of the importance of planning one’s day strategically instead of randomly executing haphazardly.  During Quiet Hour, you weren’t allowed to walk around, have meetings or use the phone.  You were supposed to sit and think, set goals for the day and plan out measurable outcomes by which you measured your day’s success.

33+ years later, I still begin my day with Quiet Hour.

To anyone who doubted the importance of Quiet Hour to PJ, one morning a temp was reading the announcement and thinking it was silly, burst out laughing several times over the PA.  I looked up over my desk in time to see PJ making a beeline from his office to the temp’s desk by the front door.

We never saw her again.

PJ’s attention to detail was staggering, often to the point of obsession.  One day I saw him walking through the office with a yardstick, measuring the distance between desks.  He found two desks that were a couple of inches further apart than they should have been and he yelled at Phyllis, his secretary (who should have been nominated for sainthood), to get Bob (the maintenance guy) there right away to close the gap.


Perhaps – but the difference between being obsessive and paying attention to details is in the eye of the beholder.

About a year or so after I started working at Johnson Insurance, PJ had a massive heart attack and had open heart surgery.  Unable to leave the office behind (likely the thing that gave him the heart attack in the first place) and against doctor’s orders, he would leave his hospital room and wander down to the payphone at the end of the hall to call the office to see how things were going.

As an impressionable young man, I didn’t know if I was watching a mad man in action or a man who loved (and obsessed over) his work.  After the career I have enjoyed to-date, I now know it was the latter.

When PJ needed his secretary, Phyllis, he never left his office.  Everyone on the first floor of 95 Elizabeth Avenue was used to the command that often emanated out of the corner office:


Truthfully, as a young man, I was fascinated by him, in awe of him and terrified of him.  He knew what he wanted and how to get it and as a shy young man, I wondered if the level of brashness (rudeness sometimes) that he exhibited was normal.

But as I grew “a skin”, I learned a lot more about this man.

His broad knowledge in many disparate areas of Life was staggering.  I remember looking at a painting on the wall of the office and PJ came along and noticed I was admiring it.  He told me the history of the artist, the subject of the painting and the techniques used by the artist to express certain elements.  “Pretty amazing, isn’t it?”, he asked, referring to the painting.  I couldn’t answer – I was still caught up in his explanation.

Similar experiences would be repeated many times in my career there.

He kept an architect’s desk (aka a drafting table) in his office for thinking and planning.  One day when I stopped into his office, he invited me around and showed me some of the things he was drawing.  He explained the importance of taking time away from noise and chaos to think through problems and solutions.  He didn’t have a name for the doodles he was making but he demonstrated the techniques he used when he was thinking through tough problems.

33+ years later, I am still drawing the same doodles that he taught me to draw.

We call them mind maps or cognitive maps today.

Time to move on

As is often the case when we outgrow a job, I left Johnson Insurance and went on to the big city of Toronto.  After I was there for about a year, I was thinking about PJ and wrote him a note, thanking him for what he had done for me in my career and that I was proud to have been “one of the good dependable people of Johnson Insurance”.

Imagine my surprise when a reply came back, with a heartfelt thanks for my note and with deep gratitude expressed for MY contribution to him.

As a young man who now wasn’t working for him, I was still learning lessons from him – the art of humility in success and for taking the time to thank others even during an impossible schedule.

By the early 2000’s, I had been living in the US for quite a while and found myself one weekend at a stamp show in Providence, Rhode Island.  There was a stamp dealer there selling Newfoundland covers (a sealed envelope with a Newfoundland stamp on it, mailed to one’s self on the day the stamp was issued) for $1 apiece and I bought them all.  Newfoundland had its own stamps prior to its entry into Canadian Confederation and as a Newfoundlander, I eagerly sought such things out.

When I returned home, I was examining my covers by holding them up to the light and I noticed that one had a letter in it instead of a blank sheet of paper or index card and I thought, “What the heck, I only paid a dollar for it” and carefully slit the envelope open.

It turned out that the envelope was not a cover but an undelivered piece of mail, where the writer was outlining some investment advice to a woman.  It was signed “Art Johnson, The Insurance Man.”

I called PJ’s son and asked if Art Johnson was any relation to him.  “Yes”, he replied, “Art Johnson, the insurance man.  That was my grandfather.”

What were the odds?

After all those years, PJ’s legacy was still with me.

Some years later, I was in Newfoundland and brought the letter over to PJ’s house with intention of returning it to him.  “I would like you to have it”, replied PJ and it still has a place of honor in my stamp collection.

While at his place, we talked about his then-current project, building walking trails on Signal Hill.  He was frustrated with the reception he was getting from people who were objecting to his “destruction of pristine land”.  “Jesus Christ”, he said to me in frustration, “Nobody talked about the pristine land when I took 50 dump truck loads of car wrecks out of the area at my own cost”.

Years after retirement, his energy to get things done and make a difference still ran unabated.

He Wasn’t Perfect

PJ wasn’t a perfect man.  I saw his anger run hot and uncontrolled at times.  He would shout at his first wife on the phone in ways that would shock many.  One day, one of his young sons stole a quarter from him and the event went unmentioned. One day about three months later, while walking with his family next to the duck pond at Bowring Park in St. John’s, he picked up his son and threw him headlong into the pond.  His son asked why he had done it and he replied, “That’s for stealing.”

Most of the family worked in the business and he had no issue with shaming them for poor performance in front of the rest of us.  My heart often felt sad for “the kids” who couldn’t be perfect enough in his eyes and who were reminded of it in a humiliating fashion right before our eyes

Sometimes when modeling a person, there is as much to be learned about how not to behave as there is in how to behave.

How I Remember Him

As I said, PJ wasn’t perfect.  It is said that saints became saints not because they are perfect but because of what they accomplish despite their imperfections.

I remember him as a brilliant, passionate, astute, generous man.  He was passionate about history and the preservation of it – especially Newfoundland history.  He loved Newfoundland and Labrador and did what he could to preserve it, spending more than $50 million of his own money to do so.

He was well-versed in many subjects, including of all things, restaurants, where he dabbled in high-end dining at the Woodstock Colonial Inn (once one of the top ten restaurants in Canada), the Starboard Quarter downtown on the harbor-front and a fast-food chain called The Top Ten.

He had a sense of humor, revealed one day when he showed me a t-shirt with the words “Whale Oil Beef Hooked” on it.  The shy teenager looking at it blushed profusely once he figured it out.  I laugh now.

He loved his family intensely and wanted the best for them and out of them so badly, that he often demonstrated it poorly. 

Then of course, there was the success of Johnson Insurance itself.

His business acumen and what he shared of it with me set the tone for my career.  He spent a lot of time with me when I was younger, teaching me what I wasn’t taught in school about strategy, goals, planning and execution, about persevering when others suggest you are crazy, you will fail (or both) and how sometimes one has to stride ahead of everyone else because that is what you are called to do.

He had a fire in him that came out as anger sometimes and at other times, dogged determination, unlimited kindness and absolute brilliance.

He was also a man who was recognized publicly for the amazing things he accomplished, being a member of the Order of Canada, a recipient of an honorary doctor of laws from Memorial University of Newfoundland, a member of the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador and a member of the Newfoundland and Labrador Business Hall of Fame.

In the end, he wanted the best out of everything and everyone around him and sometimes took to dragging us along until we could see what he could see.

He did so without fanfare or demand for recognition – the mark of a true gentleman who did what he did because he passionately believed it to be the right thing to do.

That is what it is to be the type of renaissance man that PJ was.

Sometimes, renaissance men wait patiently for us to catch up.

Other times they are not so patient.

In the meantime, they amaze us with their vision, touch us with their kindness and generosity, wow us with their knowledge and yes, sometimes terrify or offend us with their execution.

But when we do catch up to them, we are better for the experience, finally seeing what the renaissance man sees while learning a few things from him along the way.

To my first business mentor who died on Thanksgiving Day, I express my deepest gratitude for him and my deepest condolences to his family, especially Lois, Darroch and David.

My life personally and professionally is due in large part to the well-established businessman who took a chance on a geeky kid who hung out in the CompSci lab in college.

May you all be so fortunate and blessed to have such people in your lives.

In service and servanthood,

Harry – One of PJ’s good dependable people

PJ’s Obituary:

Johnson, Paul Jolliffe, C.M., O.N.L., LL.D.

Passed peacefully away at his home in St. John’s, Paul J. Johnson, at the age of 86. Predeceased by his first wife Joy (Clouston), his daughter Heather Johnson-Ballard, and his grand-daughter, Diana. He is survived by his wife Sally (Clouston), children: Darroch, David (Heather), Lois (Robert) Desjardins, John (Rosemary) Kuehn, and Robin (Dave) Kenny; brother, Evan (Neva); brother-in-law, Peter (Pearle) Clouston; sister-in-law, Donna Clouston; grand-children: Chris, Alexis, James, Paul, Laura, Beth, Sarah, Peter, Ben, Hannah, and Leah; Son-in-law Brock Ballard; and many other colleagues, former employees and dear friends as well as his long time secretary, Judy Rudofsky.

Paul Johnson entered the family business, Johnson Insurance in 1949, which he sold in 1997. The Johnson Family Foundation began in 1987, and created the Grand Concourse Authority in 1994. Even up to his passing on Thanksgiving Day, Mr. Johnson continually showed passion, energy, an unflinching drive for excellence, and absolute determination. Paul Johnson’s vision through the Johnson Family Foundation, the Johnson GEO CENTRE, (the only Project bearing his name), the Grand Concourse, and the Railway Coastal Museum, along with his many other contributions to St. John's and to all Newfoundland and Labrador, has left a legacy to be shared and appreciated for generations to come.

Many who had the opportunity to work with Paul Johnson will remember his prodigious spirit and unmatched generosity. His preservation of the stories of our past have become a story to be told for years. We have lost a great man and true leader, whose legacy will live on forever. When Paul Johnson was presented to Queen Elizabeth, he was introduced as a philanthropist who had donated millions of dollars, his time and efforts, working to make Newfoundland a better place, Queen Elizabeth asked “Why would you do that”, Paul Johnson replied “I am proud to be a Newfoundlander, and I want to help other Newfoundlanders to feel as proud”. Paul Johnson was a shy and private person who wished to have no “fan fare”, as such, following cremation, a private burial will be held.


  1. Harry:

    As usual, your posts are always an enjoyable read and enlightening as well. You really have a talent for writing. I like the way you think and view the world. It's refreshing to hear your perspective on life and the people in you life.

    I wish we had had more chances to work together.

    - Gary

    1. Hi Gary,

      Thank you for your kind words - I really appreciate them. :-)

      I really enjoyed working with you the past - you never know when future opportunities may present themselves so that we can collaborate again. :-)

      Create a great day, Gary!


  2. Great post Harry. It's comforting to read about the people who come into our lives & shape who we are. As always, a pleasure!

    1. Hi Barry,

      Thanks for the very kind words!

      Create a great day!