Volume XIV | Issue 2 | Fall 2014
Robert Johnson and his wife, Krista, graduated together from Umpqua Community College in 2008. Three years later they graduated from Portland State University. Photo: Courtesy of Robert Johnson

Giving school a second shot

With parents in prison, Robert Johnson had to find his own way

Just a few years ago, Robert Johnson says he was spiraling out of control. Barely 20 years old, he was sleeping in an old Buick Royale he bought with his last $100 and parked next to a Fred Meyer store in Northeast Portland. His parents were dead, and he had no job. The only bright spot in his life was playing pickup games of basketball.

he was sleeping in an old Buick Royale 

“One day I was playing basketball,” he says, “and a guy approaches me and says, ‘Have you considered playing basketball in college?’”

Johnson, who was reading at a fourth-grade level when he graduated high school, didn’t think college was in his future. Growing up in a tough neighborhood in Portland with parents who struggled with heroin addiction, school just wasn’t a priority. 

“My mom and dad were in and out of prison, and I lived with my aunt’s family in a house where my cousins were gang members. I saw a lot of violence and drugs at a really early age.”

He and his brother were able to move back in with their mother for high school, but both parents died within three months a few years later.

Johnson’s benefactor eventually got in touch with a mentor, who convinced him to give school a second shot, and he ended up with a sports scholarship at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg. “At that moment, it felt like divine intervention, and God had given me an opportunity to be something,” Johnson says, “and I ended up doing very well at UCC.”


Two pivotal things happened in Roseburg — the staff there encouraged Johnson to get his bachelor’s degree, and he met his future wife, Krista. “She came into my life at a time I was really not stable and, outside of my mother, she is the most supportive person I’ve had in my corner,” he says.

A Ford Family scholarship helped him attend Portland State University and gave him two mentors – Norm Smith, the retired president of The Ford Family Foundation, and Dave Frohnmayer, the former president of the University of Oregon. They encouraged the Class of 2008 Ford Scholar to think about law school.

He did, and last month he graduated from University of Oregon School of Law. “It was pretty difficult,” he says. “When I was at PSU, I was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD, and law school was hard because I had all this reading.”

Today, he is at home in Roseburg with Krista, who works at UCC. His summer is devoted to studying for the Oregon State Bar.

“Growing up in the circumstances I grew up in, I have been blessed with a measure of resolve that people who don’t go through such a thing don’t have,” Johnson says in reflection. “I’ve lost both my parents. I’ve lost cousins and friends to murder. Law school – what is the worst that can happen? I fail out. 

“I’m not afraid to tackle a challenge, partially because of realities I’ve experienced, and partially because of a tremendous support system, starting with my wife.”

Johnson thinks everyone has the capacity to develop this resolve to face their own challenges. “Though I’ve gone through things others can’t fathom, they can still find the answers. It still requires the same ability to tackle adversity.”  

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