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Dr. Robert Johnson ’68 delivers keynote address as Alfred University celebrates 187th Commencement

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Good, better, best. Never let it rest, until your good is better and your better best

Alfred University alumnus Dr. Robert L. Johnson delivered Saturday’s keynote address at the University’s 187th Commencement. He told graduates that while their time at Alfred has instilled in them goals and prepared them for success, they will face challenges that will come from serendipitous turns in their life’s journey.

Johnson, who earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Alfred University in 1968, knows this lesson well. After graduating from Alfred, he pursued his goal of becoming a pediatrician. “When I graduated, I knew that I was going into medical school. I knew that eventually I would spend my life doing what I realized I loved the most – providing care to the most vulnerable among us – as a pediatrician. And my dreams were realized!” he said.

Dr. Johnson

In 1972, he earned a medical degree from the College of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (now Rutgers New Jersey Medical School) and four years later opened up a medical practice. While Johnson has enjoyed a rewarding and fulfilling career in medicine, it has taken him in directions he never envisioned while studying at Alfred University.

“Along the way, just when I thought things were sewn up for me, serendipity kicked in, my journey was complicated by unforeseen twists, turns, detours, and barriers that took me in directions I did not foresee in my life’s visions and dreams.”

Embracing the challenges that come from the unexpected has helped Johnson enjoy a remarkable career in medicine spanning a half century.

“My life and career have benefited (from challenges). Each of these has been a force that propelled me forward,” he remarked. “As I look back, I am grateful for the challenges, the twists and the turns. They have led me to success and great fulfillment.”

Today, Johnson is dean of the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark, NJ, and interim dean of the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, NJ. In addition to being the only medical school dean serving at two schools simultaneously, he is one of only a handful of African Americans serving as medical school deans. As professor of Pediatrics and director of the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, his clinical expertise and research focus on adolescent physical and mental health, adolescent HIV, adolescent violence, adolescent sexuality, health equity and family strengthening.

Johnson’s work serving society and his profession is noteworthy.

In 1972, Johnson co-founded The Door, a program aimed at helping a diverse and growing population of disconnected adolescents gain the resources needed to succeed in school, work, and life. He created the New Jersey Medical School’s Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine and served as a member of policy boards for the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control, Health Resources and Services Administration, Association of American Medical Colleges, and American Academy of Pediatrics.

Johnson cited three “serendipitous occurrences” that significantly changed the trajectory of his career.

The first, which he referred to as “the power of yes,” happened in the mid-1980s, when Johnson was working at The Door. One of his patients there was suffering from a respiratory infection that would not respond to available treatments. Soon after, the patient would die from the mysterious illness.

“All my knowledge, all that I had gained in all my training was not enough. I could have settled back and accepted defeat,” he recalled. “Instead, I said yes. I said yes to engaging in clinical research to understanding this new mysterious malady, I said yes to finding new diagnostic tools and new treatments. I said yes to finding methods to prevent infection, illness and death. Of course, the illness was HIV/AIDS and my ‘yes’ lead me to join with many other healthcare providers and scientists throughout the worldwide effort defeat HIV.”

“Saying yes, is scary. You could fail, people could doubt and scoff at you. But if you do not try to do what is daunting you will never succeed. If you stay safe and never fail, you will never move forward. If you don’t take a risk, you will never benefit from the wonders of discovery and advancement.”

Johnson also advised students to “strive to achieve excellence in all that you do.” He recalled that, as a youngster, he spent summers at a youth retreat in Richmond, VA, where he recalled seeing a carving on a large stone which read: Good, better, best. Never let it rest, until your good is better and your better best. Johnson said the quote stuck with him, and to this day guides him to always strive to be his very best.

“To be clear in this regard my assessment is not the achievement of others it is rather my personal measurement. Have I achieved the best that I can do? When you say yes to opportunities the actions that follow should always be accomplished with your personal best. Whether you fail or succeed, do it excellently. There should be no room for mediocrity.”

Lastly, Johnson urged graduates to “love your life!”

“I am often asked how I can do so much. I usually stop and think about it. I realize that I enjoy every moment of every aspect of my work. I consider myself to be very fortunate,” he said. “Be wise in your career choice. The guiding force should be personal satisfaction not prestige or money.”

Johnson; Gregory Connors ’92, a member of the Alfred University Board of Trustees and Board Chair Emeritus; and Ann Moskowitz, an Alfred University Life Trustee, were awarded honorary degrees Saturday.

Johnson received a Doctor of Science degree, honoris causa, for his career in medicine.

Connors—who has served on the Alfred University Board of Trustees since 2008, including as Board Chair from 2017-22—received a Doctor of Law degree, honoris causa.

A 1993 Alfred University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in political science (minor in business), Connors earned a law degree from Ohio Northern University in 1995. He is co-founder of and partner in the law firm Connors & Ferris LLP, which specializes in workers’ compensation, social security disability and personal injury claims.

He is a member of the New York State Bar Association, the Erie County Bar Association, the Monroe County Bar Association, as well as the New York State Injured Workers Bar Association. He has lectured for the Monroe County Bar Association and has represented clients before the Workers’ Compensation Board, Workers’ Compensation Board Office of Appeals, the Appellate Courts of New York State as well as the Social Security Administration.

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