Schenectady native Kent Johnson carries on family tradition at Highlights magazine

Kent Johnson, center, is pictured as a youngster along with his brother, Eric, on a shopping trip with their mother, Karen Johnson. Inset photos: Kent today as CEO of Highlights for Children, and the company's recent publication, "Dear Highlights: What Adults Can Learn from 75 Years of Letters and Conversations with Kids." (photos courtesy Kent Johnson and Highlights for Children).
PHOTOGRAPHER:

Kent Johnson, center, is pictured as a youngster along with his brother, Eric, on a shopping trip with their mother, Karen Johnson. Inset photos: Kent today as CEO of Highlights for Children, and the company's recent publication, "Dear Highlights: What Adults Can Learn from 75 Years of Letters and Conversations with Kids." (photos courtesy Kent Johnson and Highlights for Children).

Editor’s note: This is a follow-up to the Tribune News Service story we ran on Aug. 15 about the 75th anniversary of Highlights magazine. At the time, we were not aware of the connection that late Schenectady Mayor Karen Johnson and her family had with the magazine.

Growing up, Schenectady native Kent Johnson didn’t plan to work for Highlights, the family company known for its popular children’s magazines.

“I did everything I could to not work at the family business,” Johnson said during a recent interview with The Gazette.

Yet, after years of working in biotechnology, he felt drawn to Highlights, which his great-grandparents founded in 1946, and his mother, the late former Schenectady Mayor Karen Johnson, played a role in. He joined the company in 2005 and has been the CEO for over a decade.

“By coming to the company, I’m carrying on a tradition I learned from my mother, for supporting and continuing a mission-driven company,” Johnson said.

In its 75th year, the magazine has remained a childhood staple, though the company has branched out, publishing magazines and books for a variety of age groups. Johnson has helped to keep the content relevant, accessible and encouraging for children and families.

Part of his success may have been thanks to his upbringing in Schenectady.

“It was such a great city to grow up in,” Johnson said.

He and his brother Eric were raised in a home on Union Street. Johnson remembers often visiting the Schenectady Museum [miSci] and the public library (the latter which was recently renamed after his mother)

“We lived really close to the library downtown. I liked being there when my mom was having meetings; I’d be under the table with a book and a sandwich from Maurice’s,” Johnson said.

He attended the Open School at Washington Irving Educational Center, which was a progressive school that took an individualized approach to education.

“The teachers were incredible and it fostered curiosity for the kids . . . I think that had to have something to do with my evolution,” Johnson said.

He attended Oneida Middle School and spent his freshman year at Linton High School. During that time, he also had a paper route with The Gazette.

“It was my first job. I delivered The Gazette throughout middle school, into high school. . . Back then, everybody had a neighborhood paper route and [it was] a great first working experience. I used to read it as I was walking around the streets at 6 a.m. delivering it,” Johnson said.

Career before publishing

After his freshman year, he transferred to Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. After graduating in 1987, he attended Amherst College to study physics and went on to receive his doctorate in physics from Harvard University.

“I was really interested in interdisciplinary research and research that could have a positive impact on people. So I ended up going to a bio-tech, medical diagnostics company outside of Washington D.C. and spent about six years there before joining Highlights,” Johnson said.

He’d read the magazine regularly as a child and his mother had remained involved with the company and served on the board, though she rarely spoke about it publicly. He’d also interned with the company in college, though when he came on board full-time he had a lot to learn.

In 2005, he, his wife and their newborn child moved to Columbus, Ohio, where the company is based. Within seven months of starting at the company, Johnson’s predecessor died and Johnson was made CEO.

“So I was still learning the industry and was pretty young and inexperienced to be taking on the job. That was 16 years ago, so we somehow made it. We had incredible teams in place so it ended up working out even though it wasn’t ideal,” Johnson said.

Over the years, Johnson helped the company create products for younger children, starting a monthly book for babies called “Highlights Hello” and “Highlights High Five” for preschool-aged children. Highlights also created hidden picture books and summer workbooks. It has also created online experiences for kids, adding hidden picture games and others to its website.

Answering kids’ letters

In celebration of its 75th anniversary, the company released a book called “Dear Highlights: What Adults Can Learn from 75 Years of Letters and Conversations with Kids,” which includes more than 300 pages of “Dear Highlights” letters from kids and the responses from “Highlights.”

“People are often really surprised when they hear this, but when kids write to us we always write back,” Johnson said.

It was a tradition started by the founders, Garry Cleveland Myers and Caroline Clark Myers. The lifelong educators began Highlights in their late 50s and early 60s and led it together for years.

“They really started the company late in life and I think that’s emblematic of their commitment to mission and they’re throwing everything even at that late age to a company, a magazine that was trying to reach kids and benefit kids and families, as its sole purpose,” Johnson said.

“From the beginning, my great-grandparents thought that everyone involved in the creation of the product ought to have some role in reading and answering [letters]; that it was a way to stay current on how kids look at their world.”

Since 1946, they’ve received more than two million letters and drawings. Some reflect on sibling rivalries, while others deal with events like September 11th or the pandemic. Editors and other employees write back.

“In fact, when I was a summer intern, back in 1989, part of my job was to read and answer letters. I was a college sophomore so I can tell you nothing went out without being reviewed but it was part of my internship. I spent about half my time reading letters from kids and seeing how we responded,” Johnson said.

Though it’s geared toward children, the content of Highlights addresses heavier topics, perhaps especially this year.

“We can’t solve society’s problems and I think whether it’s climate change or social justice, we don’t want to scare kids or make them feel helpless or make them feel like there [are] not solutions,” Johnson said. “We want to send kids out in the world with the skills and the optimism that if they put their mind to it, they can make a difference for themselves, for their families, for their communities and ultimately for all of society.”

That’s certainly in line with the company’s mission, which Johnson said is what drives Highlights today: “We help children become their best selves by publishing content and creating experiences that engage, delight and foster joyful learning.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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