Kent Johnson from Schenectady carries on family tradition in Highlights magazine

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

Growing up, Kent Johnson, from Schenectady, had no plans to work for Highlights, the family business known for its popular children’s magazines.

“I did everything I could not to work in the family business,” Johnson said in 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 in which his mother, the late former Schenectady Mayor Karen Johnson, played a role. He joined the company in 2005 and has been CEO for over a decade.

“Coming into the business, I carry on a tradition that I learned from my mother, of supporting and continuing a mission-driven business,” Johnson said.

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

Part of his success may have been due to his upbringing at Schenectady.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was my first job. I delivered The Gazette throughout middle school, all the way to high school. . . At the time, everyone had a paper route in the neighborhood and [it was] a great first work experience. I used to read it as I walked the streets at 6 am, ”Johnson said.

Career before posting

After his freshman year, he transferred to Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. After graduating in 1987, he attended Amherst College to study physics and then obtained 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 biotech and medical diagnostics company outside of Washington DC and spent about six years there before I joined Highlights, ”Johnson said.

He had read the magazine regularly as a child, and his mother remained involved with the company and sat on the board, although she rarely spoke about it in public. He had also completed an internship with the company at university, but when he entered full-time, he had a lot to learn.

In 2005, he, his wife, and their newborn baby moved to Columbus, Ohio, where the company is based. Within seven months of joining the company, Johnson’s predecessor passed away and Johnson was appointed CEO.

“So I was still learning the industry and I was young and inexperienced enough to take on this role. That was 16 years ago, so we somehow got there. We had some amazing teams in place so it worked even though it wasn’t ideal, ”said Johnson.

Over the years, Johnson has helped the company create products for young children, launching a monthly baby book called “Highlights Hello” and “Highlights High Five” for preschoolers. Highlights has also created hidden picture books and summer workbooks. He has also created online experiences for kids, adding hidden picture games and others to his website.

Respond to children’s letters

To celebrate 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 over 300 pages of children’s “Dear Highlights” letters and responses. of “Highlights.”

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

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

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

“From the start, my great-grandparents believed that everyone involved in creating the product should have a role in reading and responding. [letters]; that it was a way to stay on top of how children perceive their world.

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

“In fact, when I was a summer intern in 1989, part of my job was reading and responding to letters. I was in second year at university so I can tell you that nothing came out without being assessed but it was part of my internship. I spent about half of my time reading letters from children and seeing how we responded, ”Johnson said.

Although aimed at children, the content in Highlights covers more serious topics, perhaps especially this year.

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

This certainly aligns with the company’s mission, which Johnson says is what drives Highlights today: “We help kids become better by posting content and creating experiences that engage, delight and foster learning. joyful. “

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