Bryan Johnson, who is finishing up his first year at the helm of Hamilton County Schools, wasn't the only new face to come to town in 2017. With him came a first-grader, a high school senior and a fiercely successful partner: his wife, Candy Johnson.
Now, together, the Johnsons plan to use their expertise and drive to change Chattanooga, using the values and lessons they've learned along the way.
A drive to succeed
The couple met while students at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee. He was a football player studying business; she was studying public administration and already had her eye on elected office.
Bryan Johnson made the first move when he asked for his future wife's phone number outside the school gym one day, but she wouldn't give it to him. Instead, she took his and initiated a friendship months later; it's a relationship that would grow into a dynamic partnership.
Later, while finishing graduate school at age 25, Candy Johnson was elected to the Clarksville City Council — the youngest council member ever elected there — which she served on for four years, heading up affordable housing and human services initiatives. At the time her husband was interviewing for Hamilton County Schools' top job, she was working in Nashville as director of policy for the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce.
The Clarksville native credits her grandmother, civil rights activist Virginia Simms-Hatcher, and other mentors for the path she has taken in life, including running for office at such a young age.
"My grandmother only had an eighth-grade education, but she had love of service," the 35-year-old said. "She didn't have a lot, but what she did have, she gave to other people. That's what she taught me, that I can give what I can in time, talent or service."
Her grandmother instilled in her that you don't have to be an elected official or public figure to make a difference.
"Don't wait. You don't have to wait to be elected to serve," she said. "You should have already been engaged and making a difference. That to me is experience."
It's these values, and the influence of those who helped shape them, that she and her husband have in common.
"I'm not a product of myself. I didn't land as a 35-year-old guy that could serve in this capacity. A lot of people have poured into me and given me opportunities and have continued to support me," Bryan Johnson, 36, said. "That list is very long. I was blessed to be in a situation where I had a list of a lot of former supervisors. When I think about all those experiences I always had great mentors who saw something in me that they cultivated."
Those experiences that led him to the helm of the school district included nine years spent in the Clarksville Montgomery County School System, first as a football coach and teacher, then as a school-level administrator and finally as the chief academic officer before he left.
Though she once envisioned herself running for mayor of Clarksville — a position her longtime mentor state Rep. Joe Pitts now is campaigning for — Candy Johnson has taken a step out of the spotlight since the family's move to Chattanooga, a transition that wasn't necessarily an easy one.
"The first month, I came from working 60 hours a week in Nashville, as a career person, really engaged in the community to coming to Chattanooga where I had few networks, realizing I was going to be home with the kids," she said.
However, Bryan Johnson helped her see the value in this "new life," as she calls it.
Since getting settled, Candy Johnson has been consulting nonprofits and organizations through C. Johnson Consulting and has been appointed to several boards, including the Erlanger Health System Foundations board, the philanthropic arm of Erlanger; the steering committee for the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition; and the YMCA of Metropolitan Chattanooga's Y-CAP program board, which was launched by District 3 school board member Joe Smith.
Candy Johnson feels her husband's position gives her the opportunity to be informed, but also requires her to step back because of his role. She does not plan on taking a backseat, though, and hopes together they can make a change in Chattanooga.
"My hope is that more students are successful, and that we are able to see the shift in education and upward trajectory and that it can be sustained. That we see Chattanooga being the bright spot in education that it can be in the state and the nation," she said. "I might not have a direct impact, but I think I can make an impact in a lot of different ways."
The family at home
The bedrock of the Johnsons is shaped by family and faith.
Bryan Johnson doesn't like to bring work home with him, sometimes to his wife's frustration.
"There are days that aren't good and there are days that are great," Bryan Johnson said. "But I'm not going to bring that pressure home."
The momentous task of running the school district does affect him, though.
The superintendent, who likes to see jobs through to completion, will sometimes look at a room in the house and rearrange the furniture, and then rearrange it again weeks later when he envisions a more perfect design. That, like yard work, allows him the satisfaction of seeing results, something that can take years in the school district.
His wife says that he also focuses intensely on being a father and a husband when he is home, and not on other responsibilities. He has become more like his father, something Candy Johnson admires, she says.
"He's learning to be more like his dad," she said. "I love the way he treated [Bryan's] mom, my mother-in-law and his family."
Candy Johnson acknowledges that the couple are opposites in a lot of ways. Sometimes she wants to talk to him about his day and what's going on, but often, the two focus instead on the two Hamilton County students they have the most impact on: 17-year-old Malia and 7-year-old Bryan Jr.
Bryan Jr., a rising first-grader at Westview Elementary, keeps his father on his toes as much as his teenage sister does. Most nights this summer, he has decked himself out in a uniform and pounced as soon as his dad arrived home, ready to play basketball, baseball or football.
If you ask the youngest Bryan who's better, he'll laugh and tell you "Me!"
It's that take on raising children that is one of the things Candy Johnson admires about her husband, she said.
"He's a great spiritual leader of our family," she said.
Since they've moved to Chattanooga, Malia started playing basketball at East Hamilton School, where she'll be a senior this school year. She also got a job, at her parents' urging, and is saving up for a car.
They've visited a number of churches as they seek to learn the community and find their church home, checked out Lookouts games and the Tennessee Aquarium, and even spent a few weekends looking for antiques in local thrift stores — one of their favorite hobbies, Candy Johnson said.
And every couple of weeks, Bryan Johnson will look at the furniture in the living room or his son's room, see the potential or the next possibilities and rearrange it, hoping for something that will work even better.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly named Candy Johnson's consulting work. She consults through C.Johnson Consulting, which is not registered as a limited liability company.