On Feb. 7, 2022, Vassar College announced Jeh Charles Johnson, former Secretary of Homeland Security under President Obama as the speaker for the 158th Commencement ceremony on May 22, 2022. The son of Jeh Vincent Johnson, an architecture instructor at Vassar who designed several buildings on campus—including Jeh Vincent Johnson ALANA Cultural Center, named in his honor—the upcoming speaker held a variety of other positions in his life, including General Counsel for the Department of Defense,General Counsel for the US Air Force and Assistant United States Attorney.
The day I spoke with Johnson, he was driving from Washington D.C. back to his home in New Jersey, after just making an appearance in Meet the Press earlier that morning. Driving on the New Jersey Turnpike, Johnson recalled how trivia-savvy his late father was, saying, “[He] had a head for facts and figures for trivia. […] Right now [my father] can go off on a story about the origins of the New Jersey Turnpike. [He could] tell you stuff about Matthew Vassar [that you] never heard of.”
Born on Sept. 11, 1957, the former Secretary of Homeland Security grew up in Wappingers Falls and attended Roy C. Ketcham High School. “I was a very lackadaisical student,” he said. “I did not have—with the exception of my immediate family—very strong role models. I lived in a predominantly white community. And I did not have anyone or anything that was particularly inspirational for me, except baseball.” At first, Johnson was convinced that he would become a left fielder for the New York Mets, which for him meant that he didn’t have to study. He had poor grades in high school; he never took a mathematics class beyond the 11th grade level, and he flunked the New York State Regents exam.
In 1975, Johnson attended Morehouse College, the only all-male HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) in the country. “The inspiration and the energy there is contagious,” he told me. “I had a 1.8 GPA my freshman year, but then, dramatically, [in] sophomore year, I made the dean’s list. I had a 3.0 [GPA] my fall semester of sophomore year. And then I had a 3.5 [GPA] my spring semester and then I had a 4.0 GPA for the last two years I was in school.”
He attributed his academic success to Morehouse’s atmosphere, saying that he could feel the presence of Martin Luther King Jr., an alumnus of Morehouse, on campus. “There were members of the faculty who had been around so long,” he said. “They taught him 30 years before. And I went to school with his son, Martin Luther King III. [Being] around so many other Black men, who were ambitious, studious, disciplined, was contagious. And the speeches and the sermons at Morehouse are highly motivational. They tell you, you’re a Morehouse man, you’re special and you’re destined to do great things. And then after about a year of that, you start to believe it.”
His interest in politics, public service and political science blossomed during his time there. In his sophomore year, he volunteered for Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign, where he was able to attend the election night party and his inauguration. His former dreams to play baseball, meanwhile, came to an abrupt halt when he injured his right arm during his freshman year after running and accidentally putting his right arm through a glass window. His injury was a wake up call: “[I] realized if I was going to get anywhere I needed to study, I needed to get my GPA up, I wanted to go to law school.”
Eventually, Johnson attended Columbia Law School. “When I was at Columbia, the push-and-pull at an Ivy League law school [was] to go to a large firm. ‘Big law’ in New York or Washington. Back then, the starting salaries for first year associates was $43,000, which sounded like a lot of money and I hadn’t really focused on that,” Johnson recalled. “All of my classmates were summer associates at large law firms. And I worked at the NAACP Legal Defense And it wasn’t until [the] beginning of my third year that I researched about ‘big law.’”
Johnson applied to every law firm he could, receiving offers from all of them except Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison, (also known as “Paul, Weiss”). After being turned down by Paul,Weiss, he stayed in another firm for about a year and half, until he applied again and received an opportunity to work with them in 1984. But his interest in public service never dwindled. He soon left the firm and went on to become an assistant U.S. Attorney hired by Rudy Giuliani.
“The moral of that story,” Johnson went, “is sometimes you have to be prepared for unanticipated twists and turns in your career. And be prepared to entertain opportunities you didn’t quite expect. And it’s okay to want to do two things at once. I pursued corporate law for a while, but the ambition to go into public service never really left me. And so, very often when I interview law students for jobs, the first question I ask is: Why did you go to law school? Why did you want to become a lawyer? Don’t ever lose that ambition.”
As the years went on, Johnson found himself on various unanticipated paths, including General Counsel of the Air Force with the Clinton administration and Department of Defense General Counsel for the Obama administration. On being asked by then-president Obama in 2013 to return as Secretary of Homeland Security, Johnson remarked, “[I] never anticipated that job coming my way. I never aspired to it. When he asked me I fell off my chair. [My] first question was, ‘Am I qualified for this job to run this organization of 230,000?’ And it occurred to me, ‘Well, the President thinks you are, dummy, so maybe you are.’”
He added, “[S]o two of those two of those four jobs in government service, I didn’t see coming. That’s an advantage you have to have… you’ve got to be prepared to entertain ideas that you didn’t anticipate coming your way, and be open minded about opportunities that were not quite what you were hoping for. Maybe that’s your destiny.”
Later we spoke of Johnson’s memories of Vassar and his father. For Johnson, Vassar served as his first exposure to college. “I was seven years old when [my father] started teaching [at Vassar]. And I remember, I only visited his classroom maybe once or twice,” said Johnson. “But I remember, he used to bring me to Commencement.” He later added, “[I] think I was present for 1968 and 1969 [for speakers] Arthur Goldberg and Gloria Steinem. And I was fascinated by commencements, the robes, the colors, the ceremony, the formality, the joy of the graduation. And I think that’s probably one of the reasons why I like to give commencement addresses.”
After his father passed away on Jan. 27, 2021, Johnson was moved by Vassar students who reached out to him to discuss the inspiration his father had on them. “I see much of that in my father’s work at Vassar,” he said. “And I’ll never forget some of the letters and I’ve read one or two of them. One student said he was the first Black man [she] ever met. And he was such an inspiration.”
Last year, Johnson had the chance to meet Vassar students again for a senior seminar titled “Strategic Thinking and Global Affairs,” alongside public policy experts, President Bradley and Professor of History Robert Brigham. In the College’s Feb. 7, 2022 press release, Johnson stated, “[The students] were intelligent and inquisitive. They came prepared and forged ahead with their presentations as we tried to throw them off.”
Although he never became a left fielder for the Mets, Johnson’s story is a testimony to his ambition and ability to embrace the unexpected. As for the wisdom he wants Vassar students to take away with, Johnson referred to the words of civil rights activist Andrew Young, who had spoken at Johnson’s graduation from Columbia Law School: “From this moment forward, when you’re 22 years old, you’re going to see and do things beyond your current comprehension. Be excited about that. And you are smarter than you know, and stronger than you realize.”