On May 20, David Johnson walked across the stage at commencement and accepted his degree.
Like the hundreds of other graduates, his proud family cheered and celebrated his accomplishment. That achievement, though, was completed more than 20 years ago.
Johnson, 75, finished his master’s degree in imaging science in 1989. But he missed the commencement ceremony so he could watch his son graduate from the State University of New York at Geneseo.
“It means a lot to me that I got to celebrate something I hadn’t celebrated,” Johnson says. “It was something I hadn’t even thought was possible.”
Johnson’s story actually begins in the 1970s, a time when his wife, Jacqueline, says they were living in a “velvet-lined rut.”
Johnson, who loves science, was teaching high school biology in Canandaigua, N.Y. His job was secure and the Johnsons were able to support three children. But he was miserable and no one, not even his wife, knew.
Then he was at a party when a friend mentioned a job opening as a technical representative. His friend just saying that he could do another job started a process.
“I was locked into a perception that it was not feasible for me to change my situation,” Johnson says. “In that exact moment the perception evaporated and I knew I could do it; my attitude was transformed from resignation to determination.”
Jacqueline Johnson says her husband is the kind of person who is so calm on the surface that it was hard to read his emotions.
“When he told me how unhappy he was, I was stunned,” she says. “Then I thought, ‘We need to do something about this.’ ”
Johnson looked into the technical representative job as well as a job as a mechanical designer and realized he didn’t have the skills a business would want.
In the summer of 1979, he enrolled in a mechanical design class at Monroe Community College. The following summer, he decided to look at other colleges to see whether there was a degree that would fit his interests. That’s when he found the photographic sciences program at RIT.
Johnson enrolled in a catch-up calculus course at MCC so he would have the pre-requisites needed to qualify for the program.
“I got an A in the course and that built my confidence,” he says. “The next fall I started at RIT.”
Johnson, who was in his mid-40s, took one night class at a time while continuing to teach science.
Juggling school and a family was tricky, especially since his wife was also working on her master’s degree in education and reading at Nazareth College in Rochester.
In the summer of 1986, Johnson completed an internship and was offered a full-time job doing research in imaging with a subsidiary of Kodak.
He was laid off eight months later.
“My job was never secure,” Johnson says. “But I was happier than when I had a secure job teaching.”
Johnson was always able to find another job. And seven years after starting classes, he got his degree.
“Out of all of my degrees, this is the one I value the most. I worked hard for it and it changed my life.”
Johnson is now retired, having spent the bulk of his career working for Kodak and subsidiaries of Kodak.
His daughter, Kelly, only recently learned that her dad was disappointed he didn’t participate in commencement 22 years ago. She contacted the RIT Office of Alumni Relations.
“He pursued a new degree at a time when people didn’t change careers in their 40s,” Kelly Johnson says.
“It took him seven years to finish his master’s and at the time I didn’t realize how much perseverance that took. Now, as an adult, I see the importance in celebrating milestones, even if it’s more than 20 years after the fact.”