From Meek School to Ministry: The Story of Ole Miss Alum David Johnson

screen-shot-2017-01-02-at-1-58-08-pm“To be able to convey clarity of thought through the written word is just very important.”

“I have never looked back,” the Rev. Canon David Johnson (’75) said. Although he does look back to special memories and significant flashbacks, Johnson has never questioned his transition from political lobbyist to ordained Episcopalian minister.

Johnson graduated from the University of Mississippi with a double major in political science and journalism accompanied by a minor in history. He spent several years after graduation lobbying for the private sector in the oil industry, but Johnson recalls being internally drawn toward the ministry.

The change surprised many, but he remembers the decision quite vividly. Visiting Washington, D.C., for a regular meeting, he was standing in the lobby of the Hyatt Hotel not far from Capitol Hill.

“If you don’t do this now, you’ll regret it,” Johnson told himself. When he returned home, Johnson began the process of becoming a minister. Throughout each stage, he felt affirmation for what he was being called to do.

To ease his transition into the 40-page papers of seminary at Sewanee University’s School of Theology, Johnson fell back on the countless classes he attended in the journalism school at the University of Mississippi.

“I’m certainly not a great writer. I’ll never write the best-selling book, but I’ve been very comfortable in preparing sermons,” Johnson said. “I’m amazed how uncomfortable some people are with writing now — to be able to convey clarity of thought through the written word is just very important.”

Johnson credits his self-assured writing to friend and mentor Will Norton, Jr., dean of the Meek School of Journalism and New Media.

“He was a good guide and just helped me develop as a writer,” Johnson said.

Norton smiled when thinking of Johnson, his former student, who was a part of his first advanced reporting class.

“He’s one of these people that just really does what’s right all the time,” Norton said. “The advanced reporting class required each student to produce 30 stories a semester, which gave Johnson the experience of constantly improving his writing.”

Norton advocated trips and activities outside of the classroom where he felt he had the opportunity to learn about his students.

“I didn’t just ask them if they had a brother or what their daddy did,” Norton said. “If someone knows about you and will do everything they can to help you, that’s what I believe teachers ought to do.”

According to Johnson, Ed Meek was another substantial mentor who provided countless experiences to the ambitious student.

“I am crazy about Ed,” Johnson said. “He gave me some opportunities that were a formidable part of my writing, too.”

Along with his job as wire editor at The Daily Mississippian, Johnson worked under Meek in the public relations office by turning out feature articles about current events from the university.

Other opportunities that Meek set up for Johnson included shadowing Assistant Press Secretary Larry Speakes at the White House for a day while former President Gerald Ford held office.

“There was always someone in my life to step in and help me become who I am, so I try to repay that with many students,” Meek said. “Johnson was eagerly receptive and so focused. I love picking up the phone and helping students like that.”

Johnson said, “Being an Ole Miss alumnus is very much a part of my identity, and I love it — I’m very grateful for the education I received up there.”

Although Johnson appreciates everything he learned from the university, he counts the real value in his connection to Ole Miss as being the relationships that were formed while receiving his undergraduate degree.

One of those lifelong relationships was with classmate and friend Stephanie Saul, who took the more traditional route with a journalism degree. The Pulitzer Prize winner and writer for The New York Times remembers an excellent classmate who could have turned into a seasoned journalist.

“David is the kind of person who is thoughtful and empathetic, the friend you always want to run things by,” Saul said. “Asking things like ‘What do you think of this?’ or ‘What do you think of that?’ made him a great person to confide in.”

While Saul never would have imagined in their feature writing class that Johnson would go on to the ministry, she agrees now that it is an ideal job for him.

“In retrospect, he would excel in anything he does, because he is a smart person with a great personality,” Saul said.

With more than 28 years of experience as an ordained minister, Johnson is considered a wonderful storyteller and sophisticated preacher by many of his peers, including Norton, by teaching matters of faith with abstract and concrete perspectives.

“His time in politics taught him to understand what motivates people,” Norton said. “He stands in the pulpit with an understanding of the evil in us, as well as the good in us.”

Although Johnson never bragged of his philanthropic work, his peers found it spot-on to explain and define his character. Saul spoke of him helping with projects in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and running in a half-marathon in Baltimore with his wife Nora to raise funds for leukemia and lymphoma research.

Norton agreed that Johnson’s thoughtful heart sets an example for what a picture-perfect Ole Miss alumnus looks like.

“David is doing things for humanity,” Norton said. “It’s not that he’s an Episcopal priest; it’s not that he’s a church person; it’s that he’s found a place where he can do more good for people than if he were out there being a lobbyist.”

With 41 years of marriage to wife Nora, Johnson has two children, Leigh and Chris. Johnson has held the prestigious position of Canon to the Ordinary for 15 years at the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi.

Reflecting on what he loves most about his journey, Johnson said, “Folks are folks and people are people; the joy of life is having relationships with them.”

The author Meredith Parker is a senior, broadcast journalism major from Brandon, Mississippi. 

The Meek School Magazine is a collaborative effort of journalism and Integrated Marketing Communications students with the faculty of Meek School of Journalism and New Media. Every week, for the next few weeks, will feature an article from Meek Magazine, Issue 4 (2016-2017).

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