It's not about the speech.
That's what Dan Johnson and his wife Kendra have come to believe after nearly four months of criticism. This scandal is clearly about them — who they are and what they represent: success, money and development in a town whose politics run in the other direction. Yes, fine, he used portions of East Coast English teacher David McCullough Jr.'s "You Are Not Special" speech during his own address to the graduating class of Arcata High last June. And no, he didn't give McCullough credit. He says that he didn't know any better, and sure, he probably should have. But that's not the point. This is personal.
"You've got these people and these board members demanding an apology," Dan Johnson says. "Well, OK. You're gonna hit me with a ruler? And you want me to apologize? It's like, you know, c'mon. I'm an adult just like you guys. It doesn't matter what I would have written; it would have been tore up. Because it's not. About. The speech."
The Johnsons are sitting in their living room with their three kids, eldest daughter Sydney, who just graduated from Arcata High and stood next to her dad onstage when he gave that fateful speech, 16-year-old Carter, who has his dad's swagger and auburn hair, and youngest daughter Jayden, 13, who later this evening will call her dad "the most amazing person I've met in my entire life."
Dan Johnson, the local construction company magnate, sits in a leather armchair in front of his brick fireplace. He has a thin smile and a fiery glint in his cobalt blue eyes. Behind his boyish looks there's a flinty confidence. He speaks with the brusque, no-bullshit delivery of a hard-nosed coach, a role he's filled for the Arcata High girls' basketball team and the Mad River Youth Soccer League. Only the thin lines stacked across his forehead suggest his true age, 49.
After months of refusing to speak to the media, Johnson and his family have decided that it's finally time to open up and talk about this plagiarism controversy and its aftermath. At a school board meeting last month, Johnson said his critics don't know "who the hell I am as a person."
No one story can capture the full scope of a person, but here, according to Johnson, his friends and his detractors, is something of who the hell Dan Johnson really is: He's a man who grew up doing ranch chores, who made his first big money as a teen raising cattle. A business owner who employs 225 people and, in partnership with his wife and one other couple, owns the entire town of Samoa. A steadfast friend for a family who lost a daughter. A guy known for building green. A man who tells a journalist that he has never sued or been sued — and who later says he either forgot or wasn't involved with dozens of lawsuits that turn up in court records. A man who calls himself "a freakin' winner." A school board member who, despite a 3-1 board vote calling for his resignation, tells the Journal this September evening at his Bayside home that no, he will not be stepping down.
Hard work runs in the Johnson family. Dan Johnson's grandpa Carl built two trailer parks, one in Arcata and another in Eureka, and in 1948 he founded The Carl Johnson Co., a mercantile and auction house that still operates on Jacobs Avenue in Eureka. By the time Dan was 10, he was working there every evening after school and on weekends, said his father, Don Johnson, who now runs the company.
Dan and his older brother David were both in 4-H, and by the time Dan was 12 the Johnson boys were heading out to the family ranch with their dad every morning by 6. Dan raised Holsteins, David raised sheep and they both raised pigs. "We worked in a family where there was a strong work ethic and you worked until you got through," says Don Johnson. About his sons he adds, "They were full of hell a little bit when they grew up, but these kids worked." Dan is a workaholic, just like his father and grandfather before him, says Don.
At 16, Dan Johnson got his driver's license and started a business with his friend Mike Burger. The two bought day-old calves at auction, bottle-fed them and raised them up to 1,000-pound steers, then sold them.
"I think they split up forty thousand [dollars] apiece," says Don Johnson. "And some of the kids looked at him. ... He bought himself a BMW when he was young, and he did that with his own money. But he worked so hard for it."
Dan Johnson says he shouldn't get all the credit. "I didn't realize at the time that really the reason I was making money was because Grandpa was giving me the ranch, paying the electricity, giving me the hay. I didn't have expenses. Now I really see the gift that he gave me; he gave me the gift of hard work."
Still, when you're able buy your own truck and ski boat at 17, as Dan did, community college can seem a bit pointless. After graduating from Eureka High in 1982, he briefly attended Shasta College in Redding but quickly returned to Humboldt County, where a friend gave him the opportunity to build the Carriage Car Wash on Broadway in Eureka. He'd helped his parents build a house on Fickle Hill, so he knew the basics of construction.
Shortly after, Johnson met local real estate developer Mark Rynearson, who hired him as a builder. At Rynearson's request, Johnson took a crash course and earned his contractor's license. In 1986 Johnson founded his eponymous company, Danco, which grew steadily during the 1990s, becoming one of the region's most successful companies.
"We've probably built 600 houses in Humboldt County," Johnson says. And that's not all. Danco's group of companies (there have been at least two dozen separate entities) have built medical offices, nonprofit centers, assisted living facilities, commercial offices, school buildings and more.
About 15 years ago, Danco's insurance agent introduced Dan and Kendra, who co-owns the business, to an affordable housing developer named Caleb Roope. Through a partnership with Roope, Danco has become Humboldt County's foremost developer of affordable housing projects, a complicated field that involves state and federal tax incentives.
In 2002, Dan Johnson was named "Construction Person of the Year" by the Humboldt Builders' Exchange, and by the mid-2000s Danco was riding high atop the housing bubble with more than 300 employees, offices in Arcata, Bakersfield and Fort Collins, Colo., and projects spread across 13 western states. The economic collapse of 2008 caused Danco to cut its staff by more than half (and even to consider bankruptcy, Johnson says), but now it's thriving again, with a workforce of 225.
The company's most ambitious project has yet to see the light of day. In December 2000 Dan and Kendra Johnson partnered with Sun Valley Floral Farms owners Lane and Kathryn DeVries and, under the name Samoa-Pacific Group, purchased the town of Samoa and 75 adjacent acres from Simpson Timber Co. for about $4.8 million. The $105 million vision for the peninsula town includes almost 300 new homes, a business park, a major utility overhaul, retail shops and a town plaza. The project got rezoning clearance from the Coastal Commission in 2011, and Johnson says he expects it to be presented at county public hearings by next May or June.
Dan Johnson didn't even want to run for the Northern Humboldt Union High School District school board in the last election. He'd run and lost in 2005, when current Arcata Mayor Shane Brinton, then just 18 years old, edged him out by 502 votes. The loss didn't sit well with Johnson.
"I would have never ran a second time," he says, "because who the hell wants to — I mean, I'm a freakin' winner, man. I'm about as competitive a guy as you'll ever meet. So who wants to keep losing? And I'm not gonna win in Arcata. I mean, it is what it is."
But when Brinton won a seat on the Arcata City Council in 2008, the school board appointed Johnson to fill the seat for the remainder of the term. In 2009 Johnson ran again, assuming that as an incumbent he'd be a shoo-in. Instead, he lost again, coming in 575 votes behind Dana Silvernale, chair of the Humboldt County Green Party.
And so in 2011, Johnson didn't even mount a campaign. On the final day to submit candidate papers, he got a call from Brian Stevens, the district's then-assistant superintendent, telling him that no one had signed up, and if no one did so before the 5 o'clock deadline then the district would be short a board member. "So I thought, 'What the hell,'" Johnson says. "I went down there, waited till 4:57 and said, 'If nobody signs up I'll do it.'" No one else came in, and so Johnson — assured of victory — submitted his name.
He took office in December 2011 and began serving in relative obscurity — until the graduation speech. On a June Thursday, Dan Johnson stood in front of hundreds of Arcata High School students and their families, called his daughter to the stage, and — according to scores of witnesses — said he planned to read a personal message to her.
Forrest Lewis, a graduating senior who delivered the welcoming speech that day, says Johnson quoted large sections of McCullough's speech verbatim. Now in his freshman year at Harvard, Lewis, like many Arcata High students, had studied McCullough's speech closely. "I practically had parts memorized by that point and was reciting some lines simultaneously with Dan to the people sitting around me," he says.
At the Johnson house, Kendra, Dan's wife, says she's the one who introduced Dan to McCullough's "You Are Not Special" speech, in which the son of Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough Sr. told a group of privileged college prep students that they're not automatically special and should strive to lead extraordinary lives.
"I'm the one that heard the speech and shared it with Dan," she says. "I heard it on the radio. ... He was trying to use the message that I was inspired by." As Dan remembers it, he and Kendra were together, traveling to Southern California and listening to a radio host read portions of McCullough's speech. "I was writing down notes as it was being spoken," Johnson said. "The [graduation] speech was rewritten in my words."
Johnson says he has a copy of the speech he read that day, "but I'm not gonna give it to anybody," he said. Why not? "I don't want to start the debate," he said. "People will analyze it to the nth degree. ... I just don't feel comfortable doing it. I've been advised not to do it, too."
Even if it was plagiarism, Johnson says, he wouldn't have known that he was doing something wrong. "I didn't even know what the fuck plagiarism was." His kids chuckle. "You know what I mean? If all's I had to do was say, 'Hey, these words are from this person,' do you not think I woulda frickin' said it?"
He's still a little fuzzy on the rules. "I definitely need some more education on what plagiarism actually is, cuz it's really gray. Is when you say the Pledge of Allegiance, is that plagiarism? I had a guy tell me, 'Well, we need to file a lawsuit against NBC because last year at the Super Bowl the lady who sang the national anthem didn't say who wrote it.' You know what I'm saying? Where does it stop?
"And I haven't looked at it in the dictionary to see if that's what the dictionary says," he continues. "The point being, you know, everybody says it's plagiarism. Who are they to say that? You know, nobody really knows. ... I mean, I don't fuckin' know. I'm not a goddamned politician. You know what I'm sayin'? I mean, I'm a business guy, I'm a father, I'm a husband, I'm a son. I'm just doin' what I'm doin'."
We looked it up in a dictionary. Plagiarism is passing off someone else's words or ideas as your own. That's why reciting the Pledge of Allegiance isn't plagiarism and why, if Johnson had told his audience that he planned to read from McCullough's speech, it wouldn't have been plagiarism either. The pretending is what creates the offense. At least, according to Merriam-Webster, Oxford and other dictionaries.
After the controversy blew up Johnson consulted some "pretty high-level" educators and political consultants, including "a guy who worked on the governor's campaign," to see if he'd done anything wrong. "And they said absolutely not," Johnson says. (He declines to provide the names of these experts.)
The criticism started almost immediately. Johnson got an email from an HSU professor on the evening of the graduation ceremony informing him that he was "a laughing stock," neither special nor smart. As weeks went by without a response from Johnson the criticism grew louder, with people demanding an apology for stealing someone else's speech, a major sin in academia. (Johnson says he was occupied through June and most of July with an intense family issue. He declines to elaborate except to say, "We were taking care of some concerns with our kids.")
It's true that some rules are different outside of academia. Arcata resident Sean Armstrong, who worked for 5 ½ years as a planning manager for Danco, says, "In most of the rest of your life, the standards for plagiarism are much, much less severe."
In the business world, people frequently work collaboratively, loan out spreadsheets and freely share a lot of information, Armstrong says. He thinks that relying on the expertise of others is one of the things that has made Johnson so successful in his field. Johnson listens to the best consultants he can find and follows business practices that have worked well elsewhere. The results speak for themselves, Armstrong says.
So what, if anything, do Dan Johnson's professional achievements have to do with his plagiarism scandal? It depends on who you ask. Johnson and his family believe that he's being vilified by lefties who resent success, while many of his critics take the opposite side of the same coin, saying that he's been allowed to skate by for so long because of his money and the influence it carries.
Elaine Cunha, one of the Arcata High students who graduated the day of Johnson's speech, expressed a common sentiment in her July 17 letter to the Arcata Eye, in which she says that "if Mr. Johnson refuses to apologize or even acknowledge his error, it teaches us graduates that power and money lets you get by with a different set of rules."
Both views hold that Johnson is being treated based on what he represents rather than the specifics of his speech. The only difference is that Johnson and his family feel he's been punished inordinately while his critics feel he hasn't been punished enough. Does this stem from differing views on plagiarism? Is it, in fact, about the speech? Or are Dan and Kendra Johnson correct? Is it personal?
The Johnsons look stern sitting in their living room as the setting sun pours through their bay-facing windows. Jayden, the blond-haired 13-year-old, sits perched on the couch with her siblings, her bare feet tucked beneath her. She was standing at the back of the crowded room during the Sept. 10 school board meeting that ended with the resignation vote, and she had a hard time listening to what people said.
"I saw all these people get up and talk about how much of a terrible person my dad is. And some of the stuff they were talking about wasn't even about the speech."
Carter's been hearing things at school, like this one guy who came up and said the only reason Sydney graduated and is going to Santa Clara University this fall is because their dad paid for her good grades. "That kind of shit just pisses me off," Carter says.
At public meetings and in letters to the editors of local newspapers, people have argued that by plagiarizing a well-known speech and sparking this whole controversy, Dan Johnson ruined his daughter's graduation day. What does Sydney think of these criticisms?
"My entire school career, I've always been taught that plagiarism is not OK," she says. "It's not to mess with, and they teach you the proper forms of citation. So I definitely know that plagiarism is not something that should be tolerated or is tolerated."
How does she square that with her dad's speech? She says she hasn't really gone back to compare it with McCullough's. And her graduation day, she says, was great. "It was definitely special, and it was awesome for him to speak and everything he said," Sydney says.
Friends say Dan Johnson is an incredibly generous man. Ken Quigley, who has known Johnson for about a decade, calls him "a special person in my life." In 2008, Quigley's wife was driving a Chevy Tahoe on State Route 299, carrying their twin daughters and a friend to soccer practice (coached by Johnson). Her vehicle was clipped and driven off the road by a Pontiac Sunfire whose driver was racing another car at speeds over 90 miles per hour. The Tahoe rolled down an embankment and smashed into a power pole, injuring Quigley's wife and killing their 9-year-old daughter Nicole.
In the hours, days and weeks after the crash, Quigley says, Johnson "stepped in and took over." He provided the Quigleys with a private, piloted airplane for medical appointments and personally flew their remaining daughter back and forth to out-of-town games. He brought the girls from the soccer team together to help them bond and even helped the family secure an easement near the site of the crash for Nicole's memorial display.
Quigley's wife died suddenly last September of a blood clot, and Johnson showed up hours later with several of Quigley's daughter's friend in tow. "He's just a special man," Quigley says. "I mean, he really is."
Arcata resident Sean Armstrong, the former Danco employee, considers Johnson the region's best — and most ethical — developer.
"Danco's affordable housing projects are nationally recognized," he says. Several of Danco's projects, including Plaza Point, a low-income senior housing project near the Arcata Co-op, have earned platinum ratings from the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification program.
Even Kevin Hoover calls Johnson a nice guy. As editor and publisher of the erstwhile Arcata Eye (which last week merged with the McKinleyville Press to create the Mad River Union), Hoover has doggedly chronicled the plagiarism scandal as well as the good, bad and ugly surrounding Danco projects over the years. But while Hoover allows that Johnson is effective in his industry, he's not nearly as complimentary as Armstrong regarding the quality of Danco projects. For example, residents complained about leaky balconies at Danco's brand-new Courtyards at Arcata, a multi-family affordable housing development, and when a planning commissioner visited the place he leaned against a wall and the lights went out, Hoover says.
Lisa Brown spent years on Arcata's Open Space and Agricultural Committee, and she, too, has been less than impressed with Danco projects. "There's almost always a missing piece," she says. A Danco project will come before the city missing its water quality certifications, or it will be slated for toxic sites that haven't been cleaned up yet, or it will have access problems, Brown says. And Danco won't make the necessary fixes until forced. "If the citizens weren't raising their hands, you just wonder what would happen," she says.
Johnson disputes the unflattering characterizations of Danco. During the conversation at his house he proudly says, "I've never sued anybody; I've never been sued. We've done a lot of shit in a lot of places, and we get along with people."
However, court records show that Danco — and Dan Johnson personally — have sued and been sued, numerous times. Many of the suits involved Danco property management companies suing tenants for unlawful detainer, a routine legal step that's part of the eviction process. But other suits were more serious.
Asked about this long list of lawsuits (more than three dozen in all), Johnson initially holds to his claim of zero litigation. After thinking for a minute he acknowledges the eviction cases ("We've had a shitload of those") and apologizes for forgetting them. But regarding the more substantial cases Johnson says, "They're news to me. I mean that from the bottom of my heart."
In 2003, Robert Morris (who's now a county planning commissioner) and his wife Carol sued Danco and Johnson personally for $100,000 in damages, alleging that "negligent construction" (specifically, a leaky deck and lousy ventilation) had caused dry rot under the house. The case was dismissed pending repairs to the house.
"I used to live there," Johnson says when told the address. He says his company built the house and his family lived there for a bit before selling it (not to the Morrises). Regarding the lawsuit he says, "I don't know anything about that."
Court records show Danco and Johnson represented themselves. So it's unclear how the case might have escaped Johnson's attention.
In 1993, Danco Construction was among 11 plaintiffs (all builders or construction companies) which sued the McKinleyville Union School District, challenging the assessment of developer fees. This case dragged on and on, ultimately resulting in a 1995 settlement that lowered developer fees in the district. Johnson doesn't remember much about it. "I don't know why my name was on it," he says, "but it does ring a bell."
In 2001 a man named John Shannon sued Danco Builders for refusal to pay a claim, with Shannon saying Danco owed him $47,256.26. The Journal tracked down Mr. Shannon, who explained via email that he'd been subcontracted by Danco to build new cabinets at Bloomfield School in Arcata. Shannon says Danco kept requesting changes, which drove up the cost of construction, and, "When it came time to pay for the changes Danco/Dan Johnson refused to pay."
Shannon says he met personally with Dan Johnson and in the course of their dispute Johnson said something like, I'm bigger than you and have more money than you do.
"Not an exact quote but pretty close," Shannon writes. "He was being a bully and he also knew that the statement was true." At the time, Shannon says, he was in a serious financial crisis and so decided to take a settlement for a fraction of what was owed.
"Mr. Johnson's unwarranted failure to pay me in full ... put me and my business into a tailspin that I was not able to recover from," Shannon writes. "It forced me into bankruptcy and the loss of my business."
Asked about this case, Johnson looked into it. "I checked around. It isn't me that he's talking about," Johnson says. "Who the hell knows who it was in our organization? ... I'm not saying the conversations didn't occur, [but] they didn't occur with me." Johnson also says that his company had to replace the cabinets Shannon installed.
But Shannon is insistent. "I met with Dan Johnson," he reiterated. He says he remembers waiting outside Johnson's office and then speaking with him for 10 or 15 minutes. And Shannon insisted that Danco did not replace his cabinets. If the company had done so, he says, it would have been legally required to notify Shannon of the complaint and allow him the opportunity to either dispute the claims or fix the problem. "This never occurred because it never happened," Shannon writes.
We also asked Dan Johnson about a 2006 incident in which Danco was fined $25,000 for illegal removal of an underground storage tank. During construction of the Foxwood Estates subdivision in Cutten, a Danco contractor excavated and removed the underground tank without getting a permit or performing the required tests. Acting on an anonymous tip, the Humboldt County Department of Public Health Environmental Health Division investigated and found that the groundwater and soil had been contaminated at the site of the tank, which contained gasoline.
"I don't know if I recall that," Johnson says. Given more specifics he says, "I wasn't involved in that project."
However, in a 2006 Times-Standard story, the county's then-environmental health director, Brian Cox, said Johnson had personally taken responsibility for the problem. Johnson himself was quoted in the story saying, "We've done everything they've asked us to do."
In each of these cases, it's clear that Dan Johnson doesn't openly dwell on his past troubles. Whether it's flirting with bankruptcy, dealing with lawsuits or paying environmental fines, his style is to move forward and leave the past behind. But the plagiarism scandal has stubbornly refused to go away.
Many have suggested that a sincere apology early on would have done the trick, and that the one Johnson delivered six weeks into the controversy fell short.
Back at the Johnson house, Dan and Kendra say they worked together to write that statement and they're clearly annoyed at the reaction it received. "Shit, we put a lot of time into that apology," Dan Johnson says. "Who the hell are they to say that my apology is sincere or not? I mean, is there a definition somewhere that says what is a sincere apology? I mean, I don't know. Seriously. I don't get it."
In the written statement, Johnson did apologize for not crediting McCullough, but he also said he'd given a "personalized version" of the speech. And his statement concludes by condemning "the self-appointed referees of good and evil" — meaning anyone who refuses to move on — for having an intolerance that's "a far more profound flaw than mine."
In his second statement, delivered in person at the Sept. 10 school board meeting, Johnson said "I'm sorry" a number of times, but never for plagiarism, and never without judgment in the subtext. He was sorry that his critics "feel the way they feel," sorry that the issue has wasted so much of the district's time and sorry that his family has suffered from unfair attacks.
Johnson didn't help his cause when he lashed out at a woman who'd snickered during his prepared remarks, calling her "Miss Teacher" and telling her to "go stand in the hallway while I speak."
He chastised people for focusing on something so insignificant, saying, "Nobody was killed. No drugs were given or sold to any children." And he sought to close the book on the matter: "We all need to move this district forward and focus on the kids."
Turns out, though, that the kids are still focused on Dan Johnson. The school year's first issue of Arcata High School's student newspaper, the Pepperbox, was dominated by a large cover package devoted to Dan Johnson and plagiarism, including opinion pieces, a story on the school's plagiarism policies and an illustrated timeline of events in the Dan Johnson saga.
In the introductory piece, student Editor-in-Chief Piper Bazard wrestles with Johnson's accusation, asking in the headline, "Are we intolerant?" Bazard argues, "We have a responsibility as young scholars to participate in the ongoing dialog surrounding not just a key community figure, but the overarching topic of plagiarism."
Dan Johnson suggests another lesson can be drawn.
"They talk about bullying in the high school, well what the hell do you think this is?" he asks. "Talking about people like they've talked about me? It is bullying. ... I mean, who really owes who an apology?"