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Peter Johnson, the voice of UND for almost 30 years, says goodbye

Peter Johnson, interim vice president for university and public affairs at UND, visits with UND President Mark Kennedy on a "Walk At Work Day" event on campus Friday. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald1 / 2
Peter Johnson, interim vice president for university and public affairs at UND, has been the primary spokesman for the university for the past 29 years. He has worked out of Twamley Hall, shown in the background. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 2

Peter Johnson is a man of many hats, though most know him for his primary gig—UND spokesman.

Johnson has held that role for all of his 29 years of employment at the university. During that time, he also picked up a few others, the most recent being the interim vice president for university and public affairs. Technically, Johnson now holds two high-level administrative titles.

On June 30, he'll officially step away from his full-time employment at UND by way of a voluntary separation agreement. He's quick to say his role as spokesman has always been secondary to the presidents he's served with. They are, after all, the chief executives of the institution. But with nearly three decades under his belt, Johnson has carried the spokesman role longer than any UND president so far and has dedicated the lion's share of his career to crafting the university's message.

Johnson, the son of federal government employees, was born in Washington, D.C., but has family roots in Grand Forks. His childhood was pinned with a series of relocations which crisscrossed the U.S. and took the family as far as Panama.

Given such a winding road, he could have made his first memories almost anywhere in the country. So it's fitting that his earliest recollections should be set at UND, even if he didn't actually realize what he was remembering until he was an adult.

"It was being in this huge building with lots of people and lots of these big television cameras," he recalled. "I really had no idea what that was about until maybe 15 years ago, when I was going through the archives up at UND. It turns out it was the visit of (President John F. Kennedy) here in September of 1963, my dad had taken us all to see him."

'Honest PR'

Some years after that celebration of the young president, Johnson would return to campus as a student to earn his bachelor's degree in English with additional studies in education.

He left the school for a while after graduation but didn't stray too far from Grand Forks, making his first step into the professional world through journalism as a reporter at the Devils Lake Journal. Fairly soon after that, Johnson returned to Grand Forks and, along with one of his brothers, purchased a weekly newspaper there, the now-defunct Chronicle. The paper was based out of the old Security Building in downtown Grand Forks, a building which famously burned in the fire during the Flood of 1997.

The newspaper folded before it could burn, brought down in part by what Johnson described as a wary base of advertisers who felt slighted by the paper's previous owner. Of his brief days as a newspaper mogul, Johnson said the Chronicle was "the most expensive education I ever got."

He set off once again from Grand Forks to work for North Dakota newspapers in Rugby, then Crosby and finally back to Devils Lake, where he served as an editor. In 1988, the next step was finally back to UND to fill a job opening made notable by its title—that of university spokesman.

Former Herald publisher Mike Jacobs says he knew Johnson before even that, having met him sometime after moving to Grand Forks in 1980. When reflecting on the role Johnson would take almost a decade after, Jacobs said the spokesman was a "presence all that time."

He laughed while describing Johnson in his element.

"(Johnson) always represented the university in an evenhanded, supportive way," Jacobs said, "never trying to hide anything and at the same time never volunteering things he didn't need to."

Jacobs cited Johnson's time as a journalist when elaborating on his approach to public relations.

"He was kind of the embodiment of what you would want, of what a professional journalist looks for in professional university relations," Jacobs said.

Keeping cool, finding value

Much like one would find as a newspaper reporter, Johnson said the public relations role was one which frequently saw the recurrence of major storylines.

The controversy over the Fighting Sioux nickname simmered even in 1989, he said, as did periods of budgetary wrangling with the Legislature. Within his first decade as spokesman, the UND campus was rocked by the flood.

Former UND interim President Ed Schafer was governor of North Dakota at the time of the disaster. He remembers meeting and working closely with Johnson during the course of the state's response to the flood.

"The thing you realize with Peter is that he's a real thoughtful and solid communicator," Schafer said. "He was able to, in this chaos, grab some sense of message and go out and communicate that message in a way that was understandable and acceptable by people who needed to hear it."

That ability to send the message and not "get rattled" was crucial to dealing with the damage wrought by the flood, Schafer said.

Johnson remembers the flood as a kind of special moment for the university for the sense of togetherness and shared purpose that it brought to campus. Still, when he ticks through some of the highlights of the job, he focuses on less destructive events such as the opening of the Ralph Engelstad Arena, the 125th anniversary of UND's founding and the rollout of any number of new programs, whether in entrepreneurship or Native American studies. Johnson said he especially liked working with students and helping to acclimate new leaders to life at the university, including the school's top executives.

UND President Mark Kennedy said Johnson's long experience on campus has built a deep well of insight that helps guide decisions on campus.

"He's been the point person for a long time when there's an incident on campus that may need to be explained," said Kennedy. He added that his first year in office—a time which included incidents ranging from racially charged social media events to deep institutional budget cuts—had "multiple instances right off the bat" in which Johnson's expertise had been called into play.

Though Johnson will officially separate from UND this summer, he'll stay on campus through the winter in a part-time version of his current responsibilities. Kennedy said he has appointed former UND Student Government President Brendan Bayer to a fellowship position which will work in accordance with Johnson.

Moving forward, Johnson's two official titles will be consolidated into one.

Kennedy said replacing the outgoing spokesman will be a challenge, as whoever fills Johnson's shoes will need an understanding both of higher education and also of North Dakota and its nuances. As for Johnson himself, he credits his successes to his mentor, David Vorland, former director of university relations, along with a host of coworkers and UND leaders.

He says the draw of the spokesmanship has in many ways been a continuation of what brought him first into journalism—a sense that the job is "something that's beneficial to society" by sharing information and providing context for the public.

"There's a feeling that there's value to what I'm doing for other people," Johnson said. "That value was, for me, trying to highlight higher education."

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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