‘I had no choice but to be successful’
Friends call him the revolutionary Republican
Ka’Ron Johnson received a standing ovation when he spoke about his life and times to high school and middle school students in April — his third public speech and his third standing ovation. Johnson is a 22-year-old senior advertising major and graduate of Omaha North High School.He will graduate from NU in August and begin work as an account executive with the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, N.Y.
Journalism Alumni News editor Charlyne Berens talked with Johnson in May. The edited version of that interview follows.
What made you decide to get into journalism?
KJ: I was blessed. During my freshman year in high school, I was in a program called North Classroom of Tomorrow. It was an advanced placement course for English, geography and history. My NCOT teacher was a good friend of the journalism adviser, and he had read some of my papers in English class and said I should think about going into journalism. So Mr. (Michael) Krainak read my papers and came and asked me if I’d be at all interested. I figured it couldn’t be all bad so I decided to enroll in the (journalism) class.
He planted a seed in me — it’s awesome. A lot of the fundamental stuff I picked up on was at the high school level, and it has carried me through college. Literally, he showed me where my passion was and where my love was even though I converted to advertising. If nothing else, he showed me where my gift was, and to be that young and to have someone show you that and not have to deal with the transition to college and not knowing what you’re going to do and what you’re going to be good at, made all the difference.
Did you work on the high school newspaper?
KJ: Yes, my sophomore year. I think I just reported that first year. In my junior year I came back and I was the women’s sports editor of the school paper. And then my senior year I was sport’s editor — actually it was two of us, me and Jay Saunders who is a broadcasting major here. I learned so many things just in terms of writing, doing the layouts, working with PageMaker and other programs like that so by the time I got to college it made all the difference in the world. And without even making an effort, right there I was marketable.
To this day I thank Mr. Krainak for laying that foundation. Every chance I get I try to let him know.
I told stories, and during my senior year in high school he entered stories for me. I had already won (journalism) awards from Creighton and the Omaha Racers and the World-Herald. It wasn’t like I had never won, but it was always on the city level. But he (Krainak) decided to turn some of my stories in for the state competition, and I was invited here to compete on the state level in sports features and sports stories.
I didn’t even want to come because at the state level I thought I didn’t have a prayer. I didn’t see myself doing that well, but he said, ‘You’re going, and you have no idea what this opportunity means.’ He literally drove me down here and talked to me the whole way here, and I ended up placing gold in the feature category and a silver in the sports journalism story. I didn’t even want to be here. That is the funny part.
If you look at Ka’Ron Johnson’s story it’s not one that’s a rarity. The program (at Omaha North) has always been solid. He’s (Krainak) put out good students. He knows what he’s doing.
So when you came here you were originally a news-editorial major?
KJ: Right. I think working at NU’s Sports Information Office may have been what made me switch over to advertising. Then I was at a conference in Omaha and met Tom Golden, the director of advertising at the World-Herald, when I was a freshman.
The World-Herald was already working on a program to establish an internship for a minority student, specifically in advertising. They wanted someone who was a freshman or even someone out of high school. We just hit it off. I asked him 50,000 questions that day. I didn’t really understand advertising, but I talked to him, and he really sold me on it. He said if you do take this opportunity, when you graduate I’ll make sure that you know everything about advertising that I do.
And when he told me this I didn’t even realize that he was director of advertising. When I had met him he was so casual, I had no clue. I interned there for three summers.
And when did you start at Sports Information?
KJ: I was here on UNL’s campus for a journalism conference the summer going into my high school senior year. I knew I was going to come here or to Creighton or go to USC.
It was right after that conference ended, and I had one of the best sports stories at that conference and right before my mom was going to take me back to Omaha. I said, “I’m going to go in that office and see if I can meet this lady Chris Anderson.” I went in and met her and we sat there and we talked for 10 minutes.
She said, “You won this award, and you’ve had these experiences, but there’s not much I can do for you.” She thought I was a senior in college at the time. She said, “If you were to come here a couple of years ago I would have loved to have you, but I can’t have you for a couple of months and you leave.”
I said. “No, I’m going to be a senior in high school next year,” and she said, “Well, if you decide to come here next year you have a job.”
So we kept in contact through my senior year, and once I decided to come here, even before class started, she had me in the office.
And you’ve been working there ever since?
KJ: Yeah, last week was my last week. The stuff I learned, the type of people I was able to meet, the kind of clarity in terms of what I wanted for my own career that that opportunity gave me — I’ll never be able to repay her. It was a great opportunity.
So Michael Krainak had a big influence on you, and Chris Anderson helped you out. Who else?
KJ: Definitely my mother, Ruth Johnson, and the male figure in my life, my pastor back in Omaha, William Barlowe.
As I look back I know for a fact that being a single mother she struggled. It wasn’t easy, but the fact of the matter is I never had the opportunity to know what it was like to be poor.
First, I was blessed, but second, I had a foundation and a mother that said, “No, not my son — bottom line.”
Then my pastor. I call him Pops. He was like the ultimate male figure that I could have ever have had. A friend of mine went back to Omaha with me a couple of weeks ago, and Pops took us out to dinner. We got to the restaurant about four; we looked up, and it was 10 o’clock.
My friend said, “You know, I never really understood exactly how you are and why you’re the way you are until right now.” To meet my Pops is to truly understand the way I think, the way I see things.
When we started going to his church, Grace Apostolic, 10 or 12 years ago, I met my best friend, Rafael — his son. That’s how our families got close, and he literally raised me as his own. I think he saw himself in me because when he was young his father walked out on him and his mother. So he knew what it was like, and since he saw himself in me he wasn’t going to let me go through that.
Every time we’re talking, every time we’re looking at things that have happened and where I’m going in life he says, “When the next Ka’Ron comes, I expect you to do the same thing that I tried to do for you all these years.”
I’m telling you I didn’t always get it when I was younger, but I get it now.
And your mom was insistent that you were going to go to school and behave yourself?
KJ:Yeah, the thing is that she always did it in a way that the decision was always mine. It wasn’t a twist of arm kind of thing, but I always remember she refused to let me be anything less than I was able to be. And to constantly hear that and to have the kind of people that helped me out … I never felt like I had an option of failing because it was the people around me. I’ve just been so blessed in terms of the people that have been around me, the opportunities that have come up. For me to have failed would have been more an excuse than it would have been just a missed opportunity.
How did coming to school here help you get ready for your job? Tell me what difference it makes for you, having been to school at UNL?
KJ: The thing about UNL, the blessing was that I was able to grow up and be myself, have opportunities. When you work at Sports Information you don’t have the chance to go home every weekend. Yet if ever there was a point where I was so bogged down with something and I needed to get home, I could.
The other thing about it is I can’t stress enough how good God has been to me in terms of the people that I’ve been around. I know there are a lot of minority students on this campus who feel uncomfortable, who feel they don’t know who to go to. But for me to sit here and say that would be fabrication because I’ve been blessed from day one just in terms of having a relationship with the dean and a lot of students, white, black — any race — who don’t have that kind of relationship with the professors, advisers.
Being able to hit it off with professors and really know that you can go to them even outside of class made all the difference in the world. Professors and people around me on campus wanted to see my success. I wasn’t just a student, just a number.
One of the things that always bothers me about some of the students that I go to smaller schools within Nebraska is they say I don’t want to become just a number or lost in the crowd. That’s a cop-out because no matter what size the campus is, there are people who genuinely want to see you do well.
That’s made all the difference because I’ve had some extremely talented people around me that have given me knowledge, have told me that maybe I want to look at this route, maybe you don’t want to go that route. I know this is where I was supposed to be, and I thank God for it.
Tell us what you’re going to do after you graduate?
KJ:I’m very much excited. I’m going to work for Gannett’s first newspaper, the Democrat and Chronicle. It was actually started in 1833. It was actually Frank Gannett’s first newspaper.
They don’t keep records of this, but people there say I will be the youngest account executive in 200 years at that paper. It’s just a wonderful opportunity because no one in the history of Gannett — the people at the corporate level — no one has never not gone through Rochester. It’s still blowing my mind. Gannett could have sent me to any town they wanted to. It made me think, “Man, it was worth these dues you pay.”
I’ve enjoyed my time here, but I don’t have a traditional college student story — if there is one. I didn’t have spring vacations, I didn’t have wild weekends, I didn’t have a lot of the things that people relate with the traditional college lifestyle. Why? Because I was always working Sports Information. I needed money, and I wanted the opportunity.
During the summers I was always interning at the World-Herald. I interned at the World-Herald over the Christmas breaks, too. The sacrifice is no joke. It’s not like I lived a hermit’s life, but there are a lot of college students that had a lot more fun than I did. But if I would have done it the other way, I wouldn’t be ready for what God has put in my life, has blessed me with, and the challenges that come along with that, so I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
So what does an account executive do?
KJ: Account executives pretty much have a lifestyle that fits my personality. You have to be a people person, and you have to be organized. Because the paper has been in Rochester so long, they have established accounts. What the account executives do is keep those clients happy, keep those advertisers with the newspaper because now there’s direct mail, there’s TV, there’s a lot of different outlets where they can spend their money. … It’s a really a consumer relations kind of job. I have no intention of doing it forever, but to start off doing it is cool.
The other thing about it is that Gannett traditionally does not hire account executives out of college. You have to start as an assistant. … You have to see what the job entails for awhile, meet clients through another account executive — maybe that person leaves, maybe they shift territories and then you become an account executive. … The assistant process is no joke. It can be three to five years. To have God hand-pick me and blow me through the ranks, it’s amazing.
What did you do at the World-Herald during the summers?
KJ:It gets back to what Golden said: “If you take the internship at the World-Herald, I’ll show you everything I know about the paper.” He meant it. The first year I worked in the advertising customer service department. The account executives’ clients would call in to this number and make sure the ads were correct, make sure that the copy on it was correct, and because I have an editorial background it was beneficial both ways because I was able to read text and get a feel for the business. … Pretty much everything that happened went through that department.
The next summer I went over to classified advertising. … He (Golden) wanted me to learn every department, so I learned that for half a summer and was just good at it. The intention was that he was going to have me learn retail the following summer, but they had a campaign for the Metro Guide that they put out every year. It’s like a comprehensive thing for Omaha. … The Chamber of Commerce gives it out when people come to Omaha, so that lets you know how comprehensive it is.
They (the paper) wanted to have a page strictly for daycare people to advertise on because that’s the issue for new families coming in. It was an area in which they were pretty weak because a lot of daycares are family owned, no huge budgets for advertising. They put me on the team of classified account execs that had done it for a while and asked me to go generate some new business. I did it for three or four weeks. I had opened up some nine or 10 new accounts, and it was double what the highest account exec had done the year before. Once they found out they said, “We’re taking him to retail now.”
That summer they moved me to the west office at 72nd and Center, and that’s when I started going out with the account execs, helping them. I was really starting to learn what an advertising assistant does, and they showed me the ropes there.
The next summer, 1999, they let me actually go out and again try to bring in new business. It was just awesome. I had a manager there by the name of Robin Ebson, and she worked with me in putting PowerPoint presentations together, worked with me in terms of my delivery and sent me out. I was meeting clients from the mom and pops to New York Life. It was small and big scale. It was amazing they were letting me go out with the account execs, and they would literally sit there and let me sell it to the guy; they’d close it. I opened three or four accounts. It was amazing just to be on the front line with account execs. I was 20, 21 years old, and I was out there doing sales calls with them. Not only was I able to see where I was going, but I was actually getting that real-world experience, which made it easy when I was looking for a job.
You’ve given three speeches, and you got standing ovations for all three. Tell me about them.
KJ: The first big one was when I was in St. Louis. The internship program I was in at the World-Herald is a program called Inroads. It’s a national program, based out of Chicago. Its goal and mission is pretty much to place minority youths in corporate America through college internships and ultimately (although I’m going to Gannett) to hire them full-time after graduation.
Inroads last summer had its regional conference in St. Louis, and because I’m graduating in August I was a senior in the program. They asked one senior from each city represented to give a reflection. I gave a reflection on my opportunities at the World-Herald, and it was somewhat motivational just because there were so many students there that were new to the program or two to three years in.
I knew I was going to be in a position where I’d be able to find a job and have opportunities, so one of the things I stressed was don’t take this opportunity lightly. In that speech, there was about 5,000 people there. … That place erupted by the time I was done.
The second speech I gave was in Omaha. It was a banquet for interns from all over Omaha. Again the World-Herald asked me to speak. To be honest, I thought it was a horrible speech. I couldn’t come up with anything. Literally, my mother and I are driving there, and I told her, ‘I’ve got nothing for these people.’ I got there, and it’s amazing how God has a way of taking my tongue and speaking for me. I probably couldn’t tell you what I said to this day, but they stood up.
The last one Dean Norton and my high school teacher Michael Krainak and high school principal Thomas Harvey asked me to give for the PEN & INC students. Going in there I didn’t know a lot about the program, but they gave me some information about it. I understood it was high school students.
You know, all my life people have always told me that you’re so good to be so young or you’re so articulate to be so young. It’s always like that asterisk: “to be so young.” What I’ve always kept in mind is I won’t always be so young. There will come a time when the things that I do will be expected because I’m a man. I won’t always have this time when people are impressed because I do something a certain way or I act a certain way.
That’s one of the things that goes back to my Pops. It goes back to my mom. They really ingrained it in me: Do not waste time with your life. Worst thing you can do is wake up one morning and realize because of failed relationships, because of being stagnant, because of laziness that you’ve clicked off 10 years of your life. That’s always scary, and I didn’t want to do that, so it was one of those things that I told them at PEN & INC.
I told them a little bit about my own background in terms of the influence my Pops had on my life, and Mr. Krainak and my mom. Biologically, I come from a background of brilliant men. … My great-grandfather was one of the first black men in Omaha, the first major entrepreneurs. He owned a whole host of gas stations at a time that black men weren’t supposed to be doing that stuff.
My biological father is a brilliant man, but the thing about it is he had no relationship with God, and he had a temper that was ridiculous. In terms of my natural intelligence I got a lot from both my parents, but whereas my mom ingrained a relationship with God in me, my dad … tried to ingrain an alternate lifestyle, one in which you may be successful and affluent businesswise but you can barely look at yourself in the mirror as a man.
My parents are divorced, and he moved to California and remarried, cheated on his wife. They separated; she moved on with her life, and he couldn’t take that, and he killed her. It took me years to even face up to that. It’s one of those things that it took me a while to realize that that is not a direct reflection of me. It’s something God is still purging out of me.
At the PEN & INC banquet, that was the first time that I had even mentioned it to anybody. Some of my best friends don’t know that story, and it’s only because of the grace of God that He said to tell that story. God didn’t have me go through those things for that just to be my experience, my lesson.
It’s hard. Here I am, a senior in college. I know a lot of people look at me and say, “He’s done these things; he’s had these experiences. Look where he’s going because he’s going to have a great career.” Yet I had a father who was on “America’s Most Wanted” at one time. People would never know that. It’s the reason I have great relationships with people but why I’m so separated. … I’m one of the most introverted extroverts that you’ll ever meet, and that’s by design because there’s a lot of stuff that I deal with that I know everybody can’t feel — it’d blow someone’s mind.
And yet I can still sit here and say I had no choice but to be successful. One of the things I said at the banquet was that if ever there was a man who shouldn’t be standing there in that position talking to students, saying this is what I’ve done, this is what you can do, it would be me. Why? Because traditionally speaking an African-American child that comes out of a single parent household with a father who’s in prison for murder isn’t the best candidate to become Gannett’s youngest account executive. However, God’s better than that.
When I said I had no right to fail, I really mean it. … I don’t like to use my shortcomings or the things I had to overcome as an excuse. I had a wonderful mother, I had a man that took me under his wings. He has one of the biggest churches in Omaha and yet will look me in the eye and call me son and mean it. I don’t take that lightly.
My brother and sister — even at a young age, I always had the kind of people around me that say you’re gonna be something. … I had no choice to be anything less than what God has put me here to be right now.
What’s your long-term goal — career first, then anything else?
KJ: I don’t take anything lightly. Since Gannett is willing to make me one of the youngest account executives in 200 years, the next thing I want to do is become the youngest manager. … When I was there (at Gannett) talking to them, one of the managers said, “Between me and thee, we’re so impressed with you that … my only concern is that we’re not going to have you here as long as we like to. We fully expect you to be an ad director by the time you’re 29.”
Ad directors are 55 plus. I’d like to be manager at 25-ish. I’d like to an ad director at 29. I could be a publisher at 35 — and then I have a passion for politics. I think the route from publisher to politics is natural. I think if (Omaha World-Herald publisher) John Gottschalk wanted to run for Congress now he might win hands down. … I think it’s a natural transition. I think it would depend on what city I was in or what part of the country I was in when I’m publisher, but I’d love to do that.
Outside of that, I love family life. My Pops, he ingrained that in me. He’s been married for 20 some odd years to the same woman, so that’s a great visual. His sons are like my brothers. I grew up in that environment. I don’t want anything less for my own children, and I don’t want them to have to deal with any of the things that I dealt with when I was growing up. Yeah, I want that family life.
I just enjoy building relationships. I did that thing at Princeton a few years ago (the Business Leaders of Tomorrow conference). I still keep in contact with some of those students. In that group alone there were 200 students. Out of those 200 students, 80 were Rhodes scholars. …
I’ve kept relationships with people I met back in St. Louis when I was at those conferences. I love that because it’s not a job, its not a career. That’s the fun stuff.
Sounds like you intend to make a difference in the world.
KJ: Yeah, that’s a goal. I have to go where God leads me and have to stay on this path, but there are some deep passions in me. My friends call me the revolutionary Republican. My thing is, even at the college level, the reason I don’t take any of the things and people for granted is that I realize that there are so many people that didn’t have those kinds of opportunities.
Where exactly my calling is in terms of this grand change I don’t know. I’m 22 and idealistic. I know there is a calling for me in terms of revolutionizing things in the African-American community. … I think the African-American community’s love, knowledge, passion — whatever you want to call it — for politics just went by the wayside. Although I feel unworthy, if God chooses me to be someone who can make those transitions, I’m a willing servant because I’ve been so blessed.
I do not joke around when I say that if there were ever a young man who shouldn’t be in a position I’m in right now it would be me, and I know that. That’s something I’m never gonna forget, because as my Pops always told me, “Ka’Ron, you were hand-picked, not picked over.”
That gives you a whole different mind frame. A lot of young people in that position would have felt they’re being picked over, that they can’t have the opportunities, that they’d never be chosen for this or that. I know from the day I was born God saw it in his heart to love me and say, “This kid — I’m gonna have him taken care of and make sure that’s there are good people around him.”