9. Origins

Lately, I’ve been writing business stories about events that I took part in long ago. For you to understand the meta story that these short posts are beginning to add up to – the story of my career – you’ll need to know where it all began as well as where it went. Consequently, I have been thinking about the next posts that I should write – stories about how my career found its direction, about meeting the man who would eventually become my business partner and about the deal that briefly made me a star, then a goat, at the bank where I worked for a decade. Before I go any farther, though, I’ve decided that if this thread is to go back to the beginning, the next thing I should do is go all the way back – to my dad’s story.

So I’m going to tell you a little bit about my father. If I go the distance with this thread, perhaps I’ll end it with a post about my mother. After all, the life I’ve lived is, in no small part, a product of theirs.


My father was born to immigrants who by today’s standards were poor, though they never would have described themselves as such. His father didn’t stick around for long – family lore is that he had been damaged by his time as a soldier in the First World War and just couldn’t stick married life.

So dad and his two sisters were raised by their necessarily strict mother in very straightened circumstances in Depression-era Boston. He later said that as a teenager he was an indifferent and uninterested student, going nowhere.

When the war came he signed up and joined the fighting in the Pacific. The war made a man of him, as he was the first to say, but he refused to discuss his wartime experiences with us. At few other times did I see the vehemence with which he told me that real fighting was worse than anything I could imagine and that he didn’t ever want to think about it again, let alone describe it to me. I should never ask again, he said – and I didn’t.

After the war, he went to college on the GI Bill, met and married my mother and, with her help – she was working as a young journalist – went to law school. He went on to become a successful tax lawyer – something that he never could have imagined as a teenager. So far, a far from unique postwar boom/GI Bill story.


More particularly, dad had a brilliant and relentless mind. At his moral core was an immense sense of integrity, personal responsibility and duty. He would not tolerate sloppy language, logic or ethics on our parts, either.

My parents didn’t live the high life that they could have given dad’s professional successes. They had seven children, of whom I was the fifth, and poured virtually all of his earnings (mom was taking care of us full time) into our preparations for adult life. Nearly all of his time – effectively, lawyering pays by the hour – was spent generating the resources to send us to the nation’s finest private schools and universities and trying to instill the values that he held dear. Somehow, he and my mother also found resources – and she, time – to be charitable.

My father wasn’t perfect. He had a temper and could be a harsh critic. And he self-medicated for the tensions in his life – mostly financial pressures – with cigars and more alcohol than was good for him. But he got the job done, in a big way. One measure of his success is that each of the seven of us has had every opportunity to take our lives in the directions that we chose. He paved our roads, and we have gone far. Another is that, all these years later, we are still close.

That was all the pay-back he ever would have wanted.


In the first presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, Romney wrote one word – “Dad” – on the notecard that he placed on the podium in front of where he stood. I have thought of Romney with affection ever since that debate. I can guess why he wrote what he did on the notecard.

My father has been gone for nearly twenty years, but he is still a part of me. I can almost feel him on my shoulder, watching quietly and hoping I’ll do the right thing.


M.H. Johnston

2 comments to 9. Origins

  • dcs  says:

    very moving.

  • Vivian  says:

    First, your story made me happy. Then sad. Sad for all the fatherless children growing up in America. The seemingly accepted culture of not fathering your children in only way that word really counts breaks my heart. Those of us who experienced wonderful paternal care seem to be in an ever shrinking minority. Does not bode well.

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