About four years ago, Det. Mark Johnson (Engl’74) found himself in a crawl space getting shot at by a man who’d minutes earlier fatally stabbed a police officer.
Johnson never contemplated this situation in his previous job as executive director of the United Way of Southwest Alabama, which often involved hobnobbing with Mobile’s well-to-do.
But nagged by the feeling that the work wasn’t his calling, he’d become, at the age of 50, a policeman.
“I realized that if I ever wanted to be a cop, I could afford to at this point, having savings from a good career and both my kids having been through college,” he said from his home in Fairhope, Ala. “And I knew if I didn’t do it soon, I’d be too old.”
The change didn’t come easy, as Johnson details in his recent memoir, Apprehensions and Convictions: Adventures of a 50-Year-Old Rookie Cop (Quill Driver Books).
Easing the concerns of his wife, Nancy Hecht Johnson (Jour’74), whom he’d met at freshmen orientation at CU, was one obstacle. Later he suffered the jibes of “old man” and “papa” from fellow police academy recruits.
But perseverance led to a 12-year career with the Mobile police force, ultimately as a detective.
“I thought I had the wisdom to be a new kind of cop,” said Johnson, now retired. “I’d be tough but compassionate. I would enlighten law enforcement and be the best cop they ever had. I was disabused of that fantasy in short order.”
He quickly reconsidered his practice of providing brochures about social services to suspects: “People looked at me like I was from another planet!”
Johnson honed his street smarts and tempered his idealism without abandoning it.
“Sometimes people took my advice and later thanked me for it,” he said. “I’d refer them to agencies or rehab centers, and their lives turned around. That was one of the most gratifying parts of being a cop — helping people make significant changes in their lives.”
Johnson grew up in Louisiana and St. Louis and majored in English at CU, “hoping to write the Great American Novel.”
After some post-graduation fits and starts, he joined United Way, initiallyin its public relations department. The work promised a steadier paycheck than a fledgling novelist’s. He and Nancy married and started a family. Johnson rose to executive director, first in Wisconsin, then in Alabama.
It was a safe life, a good life and ultimately not the right life for him.
That brings us back to those tense moments in the crawl space. The cop killer did not escape, or survive. Johnson took a gunshot wound to his arm.
He still has bad dreams about that day, but never regrets changing careers.
“The only reason I quit is I’m too old for this job,” said Johnson, now 64 and a grandfather of five. “Two decades of United Way work was very satisfying, but police work was even more satisfying. It was the best job I ever had.”
Photos courtesy Mark Johnson