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May 18, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The perfect manager The perfect manager (May 18, 2005)

by Casey Reivich

On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Stanford freshman John Johnson sat in his car, listened to the radio and held hands with his sweetheart, Phyllis Hackman.

Little did he know his life was about change forever.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Johnson eventually joined the Navy and left Stanford for officer training. He married Phyllis in Asbury Park, N.J. in 1944 just before he was shipped to Guam. The war would be the first of many challenges for Johnson, who would one day help create the Palo Alto Medical Foundation.

In the Pacific, Johnson was assigned to a fleet mine sweeper, the USS Oracle. He protected the aviation gas ships that were fueling the B-29s in the Pacific. At the war's end, Johnson still could not return home.

"Everyone was going home except the USS Oracle and a lot of mine sweepers. It was an unhappy surprise when they said 'We're putting back all the sonar gear and you're to go back out there and sweep up mines off of Korea, Japan and off of Formosa,'" he recalled with good humor.

Johnson made it back to the states in time to register for the spring quarter at Stanford. After earning a degree in political science, he was offered a scholarship at the Coro Foundation, a public trust in San Francisco that focuses on leadership in public affairs. His time at the foundation solidified a desire to work in public service and management.

In 1952 he became assistant city manager of Menlo Park. In 1958, he became city manager of Menlo Park.

It was a challenging time for the burgeoning Peninsula city. The Bay Area experienced a population boom after the war. The war introduced GIs from all over the country to California. Many GIs decided to make theirs lives in the Golden State.

Johnson had to find a way to expand the boundaries of the city and ensure that Menlo Park have access to the Bay. As city manager, he played a crucial role in annexing the square miles that took the boundaries of Menlo Park to the Dumbarton Bridge.

Under Johnson's management, Menlo Park also acquired Dibble Hospital and made it into what is now the Menlo Park Civic Center. A new police station and library were also added.

At a dinner party in1964, Johnson met a couple doctors from the Palo Alto Clinic. He was impressed by the clinic's growth and accepted the position of executive administrator.

The Palo Alto Clinic evolved tremendously during Johnson's 23 years of service. His career culminated in the merger of the Palo Alto Clinic and the Palo Alto Medical Research Foundation into the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. The monumental merger spanned a decade.

"I'm really proud of the merger of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. It was tough but fun. The PAMF is the Mayo Clinic of the west," Johnson said.

Despite his heavy workload, Johnson has always been an active volunteer. Johnson is indebted to his alma mater for the education he received; he served as President of Stanford Alumni Association from 1973-1974.

He served on the board of directors for the Channing House, an innovative retirement community, for 32 years. Johnson was also president of the Medical Group Management Association, a professional organization that helps clinic administrators nationwide.

The Johnsons have a son and daughter and two grandchildren. Johnson beamed with pride when he spoke about his family.

Since his retirement in 1991, Johnson, now 81, and his wife Phyllis, 80, have kept busy and involved.

They live in the Sequoias in Portola Valley. Phyllis, who was an elementary school teacher, runs an art therapy program at the Sequoias for the memory impaired. Johnson volunteers at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation and is a docent at the Stanford Athletic Hall of Fame.

Last year, the Johnsons celebrated their 60th anniversary by sailing down the Croatian coast on a five masted ship. This year they are planning a railroad trip across Canada.

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