He is just an ordinary man, Elder Paul V. Johnson insisted during a Church News interview following his call to the First Quorum of the Seventy, announced April 2 at general conference.
Elder Johnson was called to be a General Authority after ascending to a top leadership position in the Church Educational System. He can bake bread for his large family and assemble a dazzling family history multi-media presentation. He shoots skeet with his children and takes them on Church History tours. He has touched the lives of many youth as a seminary teacher while dealing with a serious disease.
Yet, while sitting next to his wife, Jill, in his CES office in the Church Office Building, Elder Johnson humbly said, “We’re really very normal, average-type people.”
He radiates a quiet passion for the gospel, the youth of the Church and, especially, for his wife and family — the family he grew up in and the family he raised with his wife.
Elder Johnson, who spent his youth in Cache Valley, northern Utah, spoke glowingly of his parents, Vere and Winifred Johnson. Before falling in love with teaching the gospel, he was following in his father’s footsteps to become a dentist. He said his mother was home for him and his seven siblings, though she had done graduate work in education and, prior to marriage, had taught at Utah State and Oklahoma State universities. She decided at the beginning of her marriage that she would stay home with her family and “she never regretted it,” Elder Johnson said.
When he was a young teenager, he worked at jobs his father arranged for him, including working with his brother on a ranch doing such chores as hauling hay and cleaning out animal stalls. “I didn’t like it very much,” he said.
On a road trip with his father a few years ago, they talked about those days and jobs. Elder Johnson’s father admitted that he had given the money to the financially struggling rancher to pay wages to the two boys. When he asked his father why he did that, his father answered that he wasn’t as worried about the money as he was about teaching his sons to work.
“I hated to disappoint him, but I didn’t really learn how to work,” Elder Johnson said. “I learned how to never let my dad get me a job!”
Nevertheless, he did begin school at BYU majoring in zoology with the intention of going into dentistry, like his father.
Those plans began to change with his service in the Norway Oslo Mission. He said he loved teaching the gospel there, and when his mission president asked him to consider teaching the Norwegian language at the Language Training Mission at what was then Ricks College in Rexburg, Idaho, he took the opportunity.
“I really enjoyed teaching at the LTM,” he said. “I liked it a lot and started looking at teaching; specifically, I was interested in teaching the gospel.”
All the while, his life was intersecting with the life of Jill Washburn from Monticello, Utah. He had met his future wife when they were high school students during a basketball tournament at BYU.
The following Labor Day, he made a trip with his family to Monticello where his sister lived. Sister Johnson said she remembered when the Johnson family marched into Church meetings that Sunday “it was such an impressive sight because they’re all really tall and just a striking family.”
Paul Johnson was courted immediately, not by young Jill but by the Monticello High School football coach who had coached him at Logan High when he was a sophomore. Paul, who hadn’t planned to play for Logan, took up the offer at Monticello. During that semester, he attended Jill’s ward and their relationship began to grow, including occasional dates.
While Elder Johnson was on his mission, Jill started attending BYU and said she was eagerly anticipating his return to the school.
“I’ll tell you, it broke my heart when he said he wasn’t coming to BYU,” she said, learning that he would be going to Ricks instead. But, ultimately, that worked out well for them, because she was able to concentrate on her work at BYU in early childhood education.
They got back together when the training mission was moved to the new Missionary Training Center in Provo, and he moved with it. He continued to develop a love for teaching.
One day he told his future wife that he had decided to be a seminary teacher. He was alarmed when she started crying, “but she said it was because she always wanted to marry a seminary teacher.”
They were married and she soon earned her degree while he continued pursuing his zoology degree and qualifying to teach seminary.
Upon graduation, he was hired and assigned to teach seminary in Chandler, Ariz. In his second year, he became very ill. Sister Johnson substituted for him on days when he was too sick to teach, giving her, she said, an appreciation for the challenges and rewards of his job.
The young family struggled along as he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammatory disease of the digestive tract. Once diagnosed and treated, his condition improved. After four years in Arizona, he was transfered to teach seminary in Cache Valley.
He took advantage of the move by earning a doctorate in instructional technology from Utah State University. That was useful as he got involved helping develop audiovisual projects for CES. After seven years in Logan, he was moved to Salt Lake City to work on the projects full time. From there he became a zone administrator and, four years ago, became the top administrator in CES.
Elder and Sister Johnson radiate an affection not only for their own children and grandchildren, but also for all the youth of the Church.
He said his interest in CES is “to increase the internal commitment of seminary students to live the gospel.” That way, beyond learning facts, concepts and principles of the gospel, youth can use those things in decisions they make “tonight and tomorrow and over the weekend and long-range.”
At home, the Johnson family is a very happy family, Sister Johnson said. She said that happiness comes from a simple strategy of putting the family first and doing what the prophets have counseled, including reading scriptures, holding family home evening, praying together and keeping the Sabbath day holy.
“And then the other thing that has really struck me lately because of what I have been hearing about the terrible pornography plague is that we have tried so hard with our media in our home to keep it pure. . . . You can call down the powers of heaven if there’s purity in your home.”
Elder Johnson has had a lot of interests in life, but claims he wasn’t very good at anything in particular. But his wife asserted, “He’s a great dad. The kids just adore him and admire him.”