Earl Johnston III, communications professional and teacher

Earl Johnston III, a well-known public relations and communications professional for local health care and financial services companies who brought his love for teaching to the University of Minnesota, died in May of cancer of the pancreas.

Johnston, who was 58, was born and raised in the Twin Cities. He completed the prestigious Writers Workshop program at the University of Iowa and studied journalism and mass communication. It was there that he met and married his college girlfriend, Iowa native Brenda Piper.

After graduating, Earl went into print journalism and Brenda went into broadcasting. They eventually ended up in the Twin Cities, settling in Plymouth.

Johnston was well known for his work with financial services and healthcare companies including Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, HealthPartners, US Bank Piper Jaffray, Thrivent Financial and more recently UnitedHealthcare.

“Earl was extremely passionate about communications; he was very educational,” said Brett Weinberg, senior director of communications at Allianz Life, and Johnston’s colleague and contemporary at Thrivent Financial. “He really cared about the people on his team developing so they could reach their maximum career potential.”

Called a collaborative colleague who enjoyed sharing what he knew with others, Johnston made his commitment to teaching and career development at the University of Minnesota, where he taught graduate and undergraduate students in this which became one of his most fulfilling works.

Elisia Cohen, director of the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Minnesota, said Johnston taught professional writing for strategic communications and brand communications courses.

“He had the ability to make difficult strategic communications issues understandable,” Cohen said. “He succeeded in instilling in his students an understanding of the importance of accurate and effective strategic communication.”

Johnston peppered his teachings with real-life examples from his corporate communications work, where messages were often sent instantaneously to millions of people. “We share a common interest in improving health communication, knowing that the right message at the right time could save lives,” Cohen said.

Johnston modeled his undergraduate course on what a marketing and communications editorial calendar might look like at a large corporation. It allowed students to build a portfolio which was useful when applying for jobs.

During the past year, while battling pancreatic cancer, Johnston could no longer teach a full course load, but was a Fellow at the Hubbard School. He continues to meet and advise master students.

Johnston wrote eloquently of his cancer journey. On his CaringBridge site, he shared the ups and downs as the disease progressed. The messages were candid, informative, and demonstrated her deep faith and love for family.

Johnston is survived by his wife Brenda; daughters Madison Johnston (George Shardlow) and Waverly (Jordan) Konynenbelt. A devoted family man, he looked forward to his first granddaughter, Junia Shardlow, born four days after Johnston’s death.

He is also survived by his parents Earl II and Gail Johnston; sisters Jennifer Cohen and Jackie Johnson, nieces and nephews; and many students and friends.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. on June 15 at the Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. A scholarship fund at the Hubbard School for graduate students in strategic communications was established in Earl and Brenda’s name.

“He would be delighted that the fellows will be called Johnston Fellows,” said Brenda Johnston. “I think it will be a great way for the family to continue our work with the university.”

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