By mid-day Tuesday afternoon, Fresno State’s North Gym 118 was packed as students, faculty and staff from the Colleges of Health and Human Services and Social Sciences filled their seats to hear from Karl Johnson and Samantha Bauer, the co-authors of “Rebound” – a book that chronicles Johnson’s life of incarceration and redemption. The book discussion and signing was part of the College of Health and Human Services first Live Well Lecture.
Bauer began the discussion by describing how she first met Johnson in 2012 when she was tasked with writing a story about him, as part of a project documenting success stories of Fresno First Steps Home. Little did either of them realize that this meeting would lead to weekly Wednesday meetings, or “Coffee with Karl” as she dubbed it, where personal stories and triumphs would be shared.
And so it began, an unlikely friendship, that led to a series of meetings, which soon brought to life “Rebound” – a story of that truly explores the mystery of the human spirit.
“Every story has a beginning, and our story began when he handed me two ratty notebooks to prove that he had been writing,” Johnson writes in her blog, Coffee with Karl. “Eleven years of writing in state prison, yielding pages filled with accounts of his brother’s ascent into NBA greatness against the backdrop of his own life of drugs, violence, and crime. I held the notebooks and a photo of him and Dennis Johnson in my hands, moved by an emotion that I couldn’t quite grasp in that moment, as I sat on the couch in his small apartment.”
It was hard for Johnson to fight back tears as he listened to Bauer describe their relationship and the special journey they took to write “Rebound” and eventually get it published. Johnson took to the stage next and with a nervous laugh, mentioned that he always gets emotional when it’s time to tell his story.
Johnson looked back on his life, growing up in Southern California, near Compton, where life on the streets was all about survival. As one of 16 children, Johnson turned to basketball, but a life of drugs lured him away from the courts and onto the streets. He spent a majority of his teenage years selling and distributing drugs, and would eventually become one of the top cocaine runners in the area.
Meanwhile his older brother, Dennis Johnson, was finding fame and success in the NBA as an All-Star and Hall of Famer with the Boston Celtics. Johnson considered Dennis his greatest hero. Johnson eventually found himself in state prison, where he served 11 years, a consequence of choosing drugs and making many bad choices. While in prison, his beloved mother, who wrote to him continuously while imprisoned, died and less than a year later, his brother Dennis died as well. Johnson was forced to miss both funerals. The $18,000 required to leave prison to attend the funerals was not possible. As he recounted that time in his life, he became noticeably choked up.
However, once he began talking about his time in Fresno, his mood picked up. After all, Fresno was his beacon of light he so desperately needed.
After leaving prison in 2011, he stayed in L.A., but eventually headed north for Seattle, and one day ended up at the Greyhound station in downtown Fresno.
“I had a layover in Fresno and that’s when the story turns good,” Johnson said. With a few shoe shining materials in hand, Johnson began shining shoes that day and earned $30 – a modest amount, but to him, it symbolized a brand new start.
“I pulled up roots in Fresno right there,” Johnson said. A few years later, Johnson is now the owner of Anytime Shoe Shine, located at the northeast corner of the T.W. Patterson Building. However his path to get there did not come without struggles. He was homeless for some time, seeking refuge at the Poverello House. Advocacy for those that are homeless is now one of his greatest passions.
Johnson started shining shoes outside of the Fresno County Elections office, where he met then Fresno County Clerk, Victor Salazar, whom he proudly deems his mentor to this day. It was Salazar who referred Johnson to Fresno First Steps Home, which placed him in his own apartment later that same year. As fate would have it, that is also how he first met Bauer.
At the time “Rebound” was published, Johnson was serving on the Fresno County Local Board for the Emergency Food and Shelter Program facilitated by the United Way.
The service he provides is his way of giving back to a community that he says has done so much for him.
The Live Well Lecture was moderated by Terry Miller, a playwright and professor emeritus of Theatre Arts at Fresno State.
This event was proudly co-sponsored by the College of Health and Human Services (CHHS) and the College of Social Sciences. A book signing was held following the discussion, with a portion of the proceeds from the sale of the book benefitting student success initiatives within the CHHS.