I was born in Memphis in 1947, the eldest of three boys. My mother was determined that her three sons would grow up in a "real home." Blair Hunt Drive was one of the first housing subdivisions built for blacks in South Memphis. It was unusual at that time for black families to have a suburban-style neighborhood with single-family homes to live in. We had a front yard, back yard, and two bedrooms.
Almost everywhere we needed to go, we walked — school, church, grocery. Otherwise, we caught the bus. Our neighborhood was full of kids, and we played outside: basketball, baseball, stickball — all kinds of sports. On those occasions that we had to be indoors, I loved to read.
While growing up, you never think about what class you are. It's only later that you see it. My family was working-class. Both parents worked. We didn't own an automobile until I was a sophomore in college. There was never any extra in our house, but we never missed a meal.
Our home was more "serious minded" in nature. My parents spent a lot of time talking to us about life and life lessons. Let's not forget, we were living in a segregated society at that time. Very segregated. I remember the first time I went out to the University of Memphis to take an ACT test. I didn't know that part of Memphis even existed! So our parents spent a great deal of time talking to us about how to survive in this world that we didn't know much about. "This is life," they'd say. "This is what you will run into, and here's how you deal with that." So, yes, it was serious. A great part of our existence was survival, and there was very little frivolity around — for anyone in our community.
My mother owned a beauty shop in the back of our home, which allowed her to keep an eye on us kids. She was fiercely devoted to her family. Whatever was best for her family, that's what my mother did. She was deeply religious and spiritual, so there was a great deal of Bible reading and scripture. She had an abiding faith in God; she taught Sunday school. I think that's where I developed my love of the Bible to this day.
She also had a great passion for education. She only had a high-school education herself, and she believed that education was the key to escaping poverty. So there were two things that we children were expected to do, no matter what: go to church and go to school. That was never debatable. We were not going to miss either one of those. Ever. And we always did what my mother told us to do. That was not debatable, either.
My father was a porter — what we call a custodian today. He cleaned a place called Dean Lily Coffee Factory in North Memphis. If the factory still existed today, it would be in the shadow of The Pyramid on North Second. He would leave home before we awoke and catch the bus to work. He got home every night in time for dinner.
My father had quiet dignity. He wanted the best for his sons, and he wanted his sons to have a better life than he had. My father went back to school when we boys started school, to make sure he could read to us kids. That always stuck with me.
Both my parents had strong values. They both talked to us about the importance of education. If you think about that era, very few people of color were going to college at that time. But for Cato Johnson Sr.'s children, going to college was not debatable.
I walked to George Washington Carver High School from home. I ran track and was a member of the Thespian Club. I loved extracurricular activities, but I had jobs to work after school, so the amount of extracurricular activities had to be limited.
I had two career interests at that time: education and social work.
In 1965, I entered Memphis State University and earned a bachelor of science in education. College life during the civil rights movement was rough. There were people on campus who really had a problem with African-Americans going to school there. Someone slashed my tire on campus one time. At the University Center, the African-American students congregated in one section. African-American students knew there were certain classes you didn't take from certain professors because you were not going to pass. There was not a campus life for African-Americans — no clubs, no fraternities. At home in our neighborhood — that's where we belonged. At college, on campus, we didn't.
After I got my master's in education from Memphis State, I became a counselor for the Neighborhood Youth Corps, followed by two years in the credit and collection department of General Motors. Then I got into the banking industry, working in human resources for First Tennessee for 10 years. From there, I went back to the University of Memphis as an assistant athletic director.
By pure happenstance, I heard that the Regional Medical Center — known as The MED, at the time, and now known as Regional One Health — needed someone who could do planning, public policy, and community engagement. In 1983, I became their vice president of corporate affairs and entered the world of health care.
I was recruited by the CEO of Methodist Healthcare, John Casey, and in 1985, I became the senior vice president of corporate affairs at Methodist. Since that time, I've been involved with a lot of changes. Two of the major changes that took place during my tenure so far are: One, we have made tremendous effort to focus on diversity and community engagement, and two, we have placed a strong emphasis on strategic public policy, of which I'm particularly proud.
But I'm not finished yet. Future plans include continuing to give service to the community. I have been blessed to have the opportunity to serve. I am proud to be on the state Board of Education, and I look forward to working with the new University of Memphis president, Dr. David Rudd.
The term "corporate affairs" in my title encompasses … I have responsibility for public policy and regulatory affairs. That includes working with government — federal, state, local — and advocating for the needs of Methodist and our clients. I have lobbyists who work for and with us in Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Washington, DC. I also chair the Strategic Diversity Committee for the organization.
The biggest changes I've seen in health care during my career … One, we have so many individuals who are uninsured. In Tennessee, we have 890,000 people with no coverage whatsoever. Those individuals still get sick, still need health care. Two, health care providers may be the only industry I know of that is obligated, under law, to render health care to everyone, regardless of ability to pay. And increasingly, we're asked to be responsible for the health of a defined population — a population that is uninsured and has major health problems. We are responsible. Three, we continue to debate who is responsible for paying the bill. Our society does not want to pay; we do not want to raise taxes.
Health care in America is so expensive because … When 23 percent of your city's citizens qualify for food stamps, when 82 percent of your children in Shelby County public schools qualify for free or reduced lunch programs, when you're third from the bottom nationally in per capita income, when out of 51 major metropolitan areas you're ranked 51 — the worst — as it relates to poverty, when only 28 percent of your city's children read on a third-grade level — that all enters into health care costs. It all enters into an unhealthy population. And when you look at all the things where we rank as a community — obesity, diabetes, on and on — that's what we're dealing with. Medicare, as a program, is becoming stretched and stretched and is projected to be broken by 2030. We debate health care reform from a political standpoint and from a policy standpoint, but at the end of the day, you still have 890,000 people with no coverage.
The Affordable Care Act … I think it's a step in the right direction. There are things I would have done differently, but let me give you the positives. We have 46 million people in this country who have no coverage. In the most powerful country in the world, that's unacceptable. OK, let's look at what we do about that. We expand the Medicaid program. We pass a law that says you're responsible for having insurance. We do some other good things, such as cover you even if you have a pre-existing condition. We tell the insurance companies, "You can't kick someone out because they're already sick." We take off lifetime caps. We put more money in for preventive care. We put more emphasis on hospital readmission. You can keep your child on your insurance policy until they're 26 years old. All of that is good.
What I don't like about the ACA … I think they made a mistake by financing too much of this on the backs of hospitals. You're going to cut Medicare payments to finance the Affordable Care Act. You're going to cut Medicaid special payments to finance the Affordable Care Act. That comes from hospitals. But, some of the insurance changes are exceptionally good, and there are more things in the ACA that I like than things I do not like.
The hardest part of what I do … I spend a great deal of my time working to convince public-policy officials of the need to do XYZ. These officials do not report to me; they do not work for me. They are not even beholden to me. They are public servants, and for the most part, they do an exceptional job. It is my job to convince them that my position is the sound position. For instance, Medicaid. In Shelby County, we have 146,000 individuals who do not have any health insurance coverage whatsoever. So it is my job, along with others, to work to convince the state that we need to expand our Medicaid program.
The political atmosphere today … I've been active in public policy for more than 35 years. I think politics may be more volatile now — all over — than I've seen it in many, many years. The art of compromise is a lost art. Individuals no longer work hard to come together to solve collective problems. Instead, it is, "Do it my way, or we won't do it at all." That is very, very difficult on all levels. And not only the lack of compromise, but the lack of common courtesy to truly listen to each other's ideas, each other's positions, and then let us sit and reason together. We don't like to reason together anymore. We seem to prefer, "Agree with me and do it my way, or we won't talk." That is extremely challenging.
The biggest part of my time is spent on … Public policy strategy and regulatory issues.
The most controversial thing I've done … I have no idea. I have made enough mistakes to write a book.
My three primary passions … education, athletics, and health care.
I serve and grow those passions by … I currently serve as chairman of the TennCare Medical Care Advisory Committee, and I chair the Shelby County Schools Athletic Committee, the University of Memphis Athletic Department Community Advisory Committee, Southwest Tennessee Community College Board of Advisors, and the MIAA Athletic Development Committee. I am vice chair for the Shelby County Schools Needs Assessment Committee, Shelby Schools Foundation, and Youth Education Through Sports. I serve on the Memphis and Shelby County Public Building Authority, Tennessee Hospital Association Bylaws Committee, Tennessee Hospital Association Council on Diversity, Tennessee Hospital Association Council on Government Affairs, Southwest Tennessee Community College Foundation Board, and the Coalition for a Better Memphis and Generations Inc. — to name a few!
One of my favorite hobbies… Reading. I remember when my mother was first able to buy a set of encyclopedias. She would also bring us books about faraway places. To this day, I love to read.
The most famous politician I met … Barack Obama. I met him in March 2006, when he was a senator. We spoke on the same program. Harold Ford Jr. was running for the U.S. Senate, and Harold asked me to speak at The University of Memphis Holiday Inn at a political rally for him. Senator Obama came down and spoke, too. He spoke for 30 minutes without one note. I'll never forget going home and telling my wife, "I just met the most charismatic public official. His name is Barack Obama."
I felt honored when … I was chosen to receive the Arthur S. Holman Lifetime Achievement Award from the University of Memphis in 2013. The award honors Memphians whose lives exemplify outstanding dedication to the Memphis community and who serve as community role models that remind students that hard work and dedication are keys to success. The governor and both mayors spoke, as well as friends and colleagues. It was a great honor.
Most people don't realize that I … love teaching Sunday school. I have taught for five years.
My family … My wife is my best friend. Georgette Alexander and I went to the same high school, but we didn't know each other until Frances Hooks — the wife of the late civil rights icon Benjamin Hooks — introduced us. Frances was our high school counselor. In the mid '70s, I was talking to Ms. Hooks at the first NAACP Freedom Fund Dinner, and Georgette came over to talk to Ms. Hooks, too. Frances introduced us. Georgette and I have been married now for 39 years. Our son, Cato III, was born in 1985. He's a project manager for Cigna, a worldwide health insurance service company.
Growing up, the lesson preached most often … Life is hard. Nothing will come easy. We understood that early on.
One of my first experiences with racial inequality … Every year, after school had ended for the year, my mother took us Downtown for lunch. It was a huge deal for us. We'd ride the bus. I remember getting on the bus, and I was about to take a seat. My mother grabbed me and said, "Oh, no. You can't sit there. We have to go to the back." That was the first time I understood about having to go to the back of the bus. And once we got Downtown, there were only a few places we could go have lunch. And we had to go downstairs to eat.
I keep my sense of humor by … being able to laugh at myself.
From my mother, I got … First, a tremendous dependence on trusting my God. Second, my mother believed in the Golden Rule: Treat people the way you want to be treated. If we remember the Golden Rule, the current lack of civility in our society wouldn't be a problem. Third, I can never remember a day when my mother didn't work hard. Never. She ran a beauty shop, she cooked, she cleaned, took care of her boys, and worked in the church. Hard work was tantamount to my mother.
My first experience with white people … was when I was around 14 or 15 and working at the corner grocery store. It was white-owned. So growing up, any white people I came in contact with, I had no personal relationship with. I worked for them or they owned the stores in our community. It's not like I played with white children. No.
When Dr. King was assassinated, I was … at choir practice at Tree of Life Baptist Church. I was about 21 years old. I knew that nothing was more important than equality and the fight for equality.
My first name … My father's name was Cato, and my son is Cato III. I don't know where the name came from in our family, but I do know that Caesar's secretary was named Cato.
My first taste of corporate America … was in the late '70s, when I went to work for General Motors in their credits and collections department. I hated it! But I learned some lessons there — lessons that my parents had already taught me: You're not going to always do things you like. And what do you learn when you have a job that you really don't like? You learn that you still have to do it, and you still have to do it well.
My work ethic … was instilled in me by my mother. Let me give you an example. The night my mother passed — I remember like it was yesterday — was a Monday night. Tuesday morning, I came into work as usual. My coworkers asked, "Why did you come to work today?" I said, "Because I can hear Momma's voice saying, 'You know you're supposed to go to work, don't you?'" There was never any excuse not to go to work, not to go to school, and not to go to church.
When I had my stroke in 2010 … I got up to go to my 4 a.m. workout, as usual. But I kept losing my balance. Wobbling. I ignored it and drove to the gym. But I could not make it from the car to the gym door. I got back in my car and thought, "Something is wrong. Lord, give me the strength to get home." When I got home, my wife said, "What are you doing back already?" I said, "I think I'm having a stroke." I knew the symptoms. She called the paramedics. I got to the hospital, and they ran tests for the whole day. I'd had a small stroke that affected the back of my brain. They told me that I'd probably had two prior strokes that I didn't even notice! So for the next three weeks, I was on an aspirin regimen, went to physical rehab, and did all the things that post-stroke patients are supposed to do.
What I learned about strokes … They're often caused by stress. I'll never forget my doctor saying to me, "You are working out and losing weight, and that didn't cause your stroke. So let's look at what your lifestyle is like. You co-chaired two transition teams, back to back. You are involved with local and state boards and commissions. On top of all of that, you were doing your job, which is highly stressful in its own right." He was right, but I didn't feel stressed!
I manage my stress by … After my stroke, my therapist told me, "If you're having a day that's filled with meetings and projects, at some point during that day, stop. Go outside and just walk away." I started doing that. It makes a tremendous difference.
One of the biggest lessons I learned … Put faith and family first. All of these other things in your life aren't nearly as important as you think they are. The second thing I learned: None of us are as important as we think we are. The world will definitely go on without you.
As a child, when I grew up, I wanted to be … successful. Without a doubt. Then, if I thought about what I actually wanted to do, it was whatever was going to lead me to be successful. At that time, my definition of success was more money. I wanted to explore what having more money would do. For example, I could get a cupcake for a dime. But most of the time, I didn't have a dime. If I had more money, I could buy an ice cream when the ice cream man came by.
The adults in my childhood neighborhood … When you grow up in an African-American community, the individuals you see who you deem as successful are teachers, ministers, and blue-collar workers. At that time in Memphis, we had Firestone, International Harvester, transportation industries, and warehouses. If you were successful, you held a blue-collar job, and most of the adults in my neighborhood did.
My first paying job … was in seventh grade, selling a high school newspaper called The Memphis World. It cost six cents, and if you sold one, you kept three cents. Later, I delivered the Memphis Press Scimitar, then The Commercial Appeal. I delivered the papers on foot. I then worked at a sundry store, delivering drinks, ice cream, and sandwiches on my bicycle. After that, I bought a lawnmower and cut yards.
An early lesson I learned … Earning my own money left a lifelong impression on me. One of the things you learn about earning your own money is the sense of independence, the sense of accomplishment. This money is yours. You worked for it; you earned it. And let's not forget that at that time, you worked hard for it.
One of my first "big purchases" was … a baseball glove. That was a luxury. When the neighborhood kids played baseball, we didn't have gloves.
When I'm not being Cato the senior vice president, I like to ... work out, read, and spend time with my wife. We love to eat out together.
The types of things that keep me up at night … The well-being of my family, the future of the health care industry, and where are we as a community, relating to race, poverty, jobs, and education.
Items still on my bucket list ... Travel — to Europe, the Holy Land, and tropical islands.
My final 2 cents ... "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight." Proverbs 3:5–6. Also: "It is better to put trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man." Psalm 118:8. And: "The Lord is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?" Psalm 118:6. Those three verses sit on my desk, and I look at them every day.