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Alumni Profile: Alzheimer's Association President and CEO Harry Johns '90

posted on 11/20/2009

by Mary Ellen Collins

Through Eckerd's Program for Experienced Learners (PEL), Harry Johns earned his Bachelor's degree in Business Administration from Eckerd College in 1990. He was the 2008 recipient of the William H. Kadel Alumni Medal. November is National Alzheimer's Disease Awareness Month

Harry Johns '90, president and CEO of the Alzheimer's Association, envisioned a career in public policy or journalism when he was a student at the local community college and then at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. The pull of Capitol Hill was strong enough to make the college junior leave school to work as a projects assistant for Congressman Paul Simon.

"I just knew it was the right thing to do," he says. He describes his role in Washington as that of an 'inverse lobbyist,' getting federal support for economic development back to the district. After a couple of years, John returned to Illinois, where he worked in economic development and made an unsuccessful bid for a seat in the legislature.

He and his wife then decided to join several of her family members in Arizona, where Johns began a 22-year career with the American Cancer Society (ACS). After serving as a field representative for just a few months, he became executive director for the ACS of metro Phoenix.

By that time, Johns was intent on finishing school, and took a few classes at Arizona State University as he moved up through the ACS ranks. After six years, he was recruited to be marketing development vice president at the Florida headquarters of the ACS in Tampa. And in conjunction with that career move, the next step in his educational pursuits brought him to Eckerd College.

"My wife gets the credit for identifying Program for Experienced Learners," he says. "I don't remember how she heard about it, but she knew I was thinking of trying to the get the degree done - and she aimed me in that direction. I am a natural story for PEL... it really is geared for experienced learners and it was a perfect match for me."

It took Johns about a year of juggling work and school to complete his bachelor's degree in Business Administration, and he gave the 1990 graduation speech on behalf of the PEL students, thanks to a nomination from Professor of Management and Finance Naveen Malhotra. Johns remembers Malhotra's support in another way, as well.

"I was trying to think about whether I should do an MBA right after graduation, and at a very timely moment he said, 'The best investment you can make is in yourself.'" Johns says the simple encouragement had a moving effect, and he immediately enrolled in the executive MBA program at Northwestern University's Kellogg Graduate School of Management, commuting from Tampa for a year.

His final role with the ACS involved a move to the national headquarters in Atlanta, where he served as a member of a four-person, national executive team. In 2005, a call from a recruiter resulted in Johns becoming the president and CEO of the Alzheimer's Association. Since taking the reins of the organization, he has worked hard to increase Alzheimer's awareness and promote the need for increased research to accelerate progress in treatment.

"At the Alzheimer's Association, we've got a long history of supporting young investigators and encouraging them to get into the research sciences and into Alzheimer's research particularly. The downturn in funding from NIH has had a disproportionate effect on younger investigators, discouraging them from getting involved."

He also takes personal pride in having created an initiative to encourage people and their families to get involved in clinical research, saying, "The lack of participants is an impediment to medical research and slows down the progress of science."

In 2008, Johns received Eckerd's William H. Kadel Alumni Medal for Outstanding Career Achievement, which is awarded to a graduate who has received public recognition or demonstrated achievement or leadership that positively reflects the College's vision. And at a time when Eckerd is focusing on enhancing science education and research opportunities, it is fitting to shine a spotlight on Johns - a passionate advocate for cancer and Alzheimer's patients and a tireless supporter of the researchers who help them.

This feature is the third of a series of profiles of Eckerd alumni and friends who embody the emphasis of the Sciences at Eckerd College. Learn more about the Many Experiences, One Spirit: The Campaign for Eckerd College and the Center for Molecular and Life Sciences, a Campaign priority.

Previous Science Profiles:
Patrick Griffin
Jeffrey Dodge '84

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