If Cato Johnson ever decided to leave his position as senior vice president of corporate affairs at Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, he could quite possibly become an epic spokesperson for an energy drink. A healthy one, that is.
A 40-minute interview with Johnson reveals a man who is deeply knowledgeable about his field, passionate about his community and generous with his time. He is cheerful and good-humored, and it’s difficult to have a conversation with him without inevitably cracking a smile.
Friday, Feb. 1, the University of Memphis will recognize Johnson for his accomplishments and contributions with the Authur S. Holmon Lifetime Achievement Award. The ceremony, presented by the university’s Black Student Association and the Office of Multicultural Affairs, will take place during a 7 p.m. reception for Black History Month at Rose Theatre.
Established in 1991, the award honors Memphians whose lives exemplify outstanding dedication to the community.
“We look for someone who has not only given back to the community but to the university’s students as well,” said Linda Hall, multicultural affairs coordinator at University of Memphis. “Cato Johnson is a great example to our students that it doesn’t matter where you start out in life, it’s where you go from there. Anyone can achieve success and make a difference.”
When it comes to Johnson’s success, it’s difficult to condense his professional accomplishments and altruistic nature. His official bio lists at least 27 community committees, councils, boards and associations. The lifetime achievement award will join at least eight other honors and accolades.
“I’ve always felt that we all have an obligation to do anything and everything we can to make our community better,” he said.
Born and raised in Memphis, Johnson credits his parents with providing a strong foundation of values on which he and his two brothers could build their futures.
“In our household, there were two things you knew you were going to do – go to church and go to school,” he said.
As to what he wanted to be when he grew up, Johnson said he didn’t have a specific career in mind back then.
“Cato Johnson is a great example to our students that it doesn’t matter where you start out in life, it’s where you go from there. Anyone can achieve success and make a difference.”
University of Memphis
“For me, the biggest thing was to graduate from high school and college,” he said. “I knew that if I focused on my relationship with God and did the best I could to receive a good education, I’d do all right.”
He did do all right. Today Johnson holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from the University of Memphis. He is a member of the U of M Athletic Advisory Board of Directors. He also has been chair of the university athletic department’s Community Advisory Committee, past president of the U of M Alumni Association and a member of the Board of Trustees for the University of Memphis Foundation.
Beyond his involvement with the university, Johnson is dedicated to improving the educational landscape throughout the region. He is vice-chair of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission as well as Shelby County’s Needs Assessment Committee, which evaluates and addresses the capital needs of Memphis and Shelby County schools.
Johnson is the former chair and current member of the Southwest Tennessee Community College Foundation Board. He also has served as co-chair of Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.’s Advisory Council on Education. And that’s only part of the list.
“I have a tremendous passion for education – I honestly believe education is one of those entities that can drive so many positives,” Johnson said.
He’s also passionate about health care, and at Methodist Le Bonheur, where he’s overseen corporate affairs since 1985, no two days at work are the same. He works on issues surrounding health care reform, health care reimbursement and Medicaid expansion, to name just a few.
And, as with education, he shares his knowledge and experience with the community whenever he can. He was an original member of former Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist’s TennCare Roundtable, chair of the TennCare Medical Care Advisory Committee, vice-chair of the State Health Planning and Advisory Board and a member of Gov. Haslam’s Health and Wellness Task Force.
Peel away all the titles, accomplishments and awards, and you’ll find that Johnson is a big-hearted man who cherishes his family and lives a life governed by humility and good intentions.
“My greatest accomplishment, by God’s grace, is raising a child, Cato Johnson III, who graduated from college and is now working in the Shelby County school system,” he said. “And being married to my wife, Georgette, for 37 years.”
He finds joy in being a Sunday school instructor at Cross of Calvary Lutheran Church, reading and working out six days a week.
Johnson’s advice for others who aspire to success is fairly simple.
“Always assume positive intent. It’s so easy to dwell on the negative, but life is a lot easier when you focus on the positive,” he said. “And at the end of the day, regardless of how many degrees you have and how smart you think you are, focus on your relationship with God. Every day, there are still things that drive me to my knees.”