By Todd Cohen
[Note: This was written for Triangle Community Foundation.]
MORRISVILLE, N.C. — As a child growing up in Houston, Tex., Bob Johnston learned the importance of going beyond one’s means to help people in need. His father, a firefighter and then a long-time employee of the U.S. Post Office, and his mother, a bookkeeper, were devout Southern Baptists who took seriously the Biblical prescription for tithing and never failed to give 10 percent of their income to charity.
“They did that even when they definitely needed the money,” Johnston says. “That came off the top for them. As I grew older and realized the sacrifices they made to help people who were less well off than themselves, I asked, ‘How does a person who’s financially secure shows their kids this principle without the example of sacrificing?'”
As a teenager, Johnston promised himself that if he ever had children, he would create a pool of funds and involve his children in deciding which charities to support with that money.
Then, in the late 1990s, after co-founding AlphaVax, a vaccine-maker in Durham, and serving as its CEO and chairman, Johnston talked to Triangle Community Foundation and learned he could create a donor advised fund that would make it “possible for people of ordinary means” to create the type of family philanthropy he envisioned.
So he created the Howard Allen Johnston Fund, named for his brother who was killed at age 20 in an automobile accident.
Johnston and his four daughters, ages 22 to 46, have focused their giving from the fund on agencies in the Triangle that serve homeless people, and on local food banks.
“Food, shelter and clothing,” says Johnston, who is founder and executive director of Global Vaccines, a nonprofit in Morrisville. “They’re pretty basic. There are many people in our society who lack one or more of those.”
How things work
Johnston hails from four or five generations of Texans. His parents attended the same Houston high school where Lyndon B. Johnson, the future U.S. president, was teaching, although they were not in any of his classes. And while neither of Johnston’s parents went to college, they both taught him a lot about life and how to live it, he says.
“My mother had a pretty tough life growing up,” he says. “She was a very smart and very tough woman.”
His father was “a little more easy going, more athletic type, with a great sense of humor,” he says. “Hardly a day goes by I don’t quote him.”
From an early age, Johnston says, he was curious about “what made things work,” a fascination that led him to major in biology at Rice University and get a Ph.D. in microbiology at the University of Texas.
Having been raised in a religious home, he says, “I learned that giving to other people, doing something for other people, was about the highest calling you could have.”
So from the time he was a teenager, he “always hoped that at some point I could do something in biology that would help the world or some small part of it.”
Academia and research
In 1976, Ph.D. in hand, Johnston got a job as an assistant professor of microbiology at North Carolina State University, where he rose through the ranks to became a professor and also an adjunct professor at what is now the College of Veterinary Medicine at N.C. State. And in 1989, he moved to the School of Medicine at UNC-Chapel Hill as a professor of microbiology and immunology.
Then, in 1997, he co-founded AlphaVax, which initially worked on a vaccine for HIV but later switched its focus to making vaccines for viruses related to herpes — a shift Johnston did not favor.
“The biotech road is littered with with companies that tried to make vaccines for herpes-type viruses,” he says.
Vaccines for poor countries
In 2002, Johnston founded Global Vaccines “to harness new technologies to make vaccines for diseases in developing countries,” he says.
The nonprofit aims to address a gap in the market for vaccines, Johnston says.
For-profit vaccine companies typically license new technologies from universities that develop them, but then have no profit incentive to apply those technologies to diseases for which there often is little or no market, “so diseases that affect billions never benefit,” he says.
“We want to intercept those technologies, apply them to poor countries for these diseases, and see if we could make a difference in the world,” he says.
Global Vaccines has licensed two technologies from UNC-Chapel Hill, including one invented in his lab there that it continues to work on. It has developed an “adjuvant,” or agent, to increase the immune response of vaccines, including one for dengue fever.
Known as “break-bone fever,” the mosquito-transmitted disease is “absolutely rampant in poor countries,” with 400 million cases a year and 2.5 billion people at risk for infection, Johnston says.
Global Vaccines, which employs half-a-dozen people working full-time and part-time, has received funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.
And while it has not yet brought a vaccine to market, Johnston says, “we’ve got a mighty big heart.”
Making life better
A big heart also could be a metaphor for Johnston’s approach to giving.
Philanthropy is “helping people who don’t have as much as you do, or who haven’t had the opportunities or for that matter the luck that you have had,” he says. “By that definition, everybody can be a philanthropist. The amount doesn’t matter; it’s the act.”
What inspires him, he says, are “ordinary people doing extraordinary things relative to their capacity, ordinary people going beyond themselves to do something extraordinary.”
Life in the Triangle
In addition to the Triangle’s “weather and livability,” what Johnston likes about the region is that it is “intellectually dynamic,” he says. “So many people have good ideas and they put them into practice here. It’s just intellectually a stimulating place.”
The region also faces big challenges. To deal with the traffic its growth has created, the Triangle has opted for the traditional strategy of simply building more roads, he says.
“That’s a big error,” he says. “We need a light rail system and we need it about a decade ago. If we don’t get on that right now, we’re going to have just the same traffic mess as Houston and L.A. and just about every city. We shouldn’t worry about where existing rail lines are. We need to build mass transit.”
He also believes the region need more affordable child care and pre-kindergarten education.
In his own childhood, “my mom was home,” he says. “My grandfather and grandmother were right across the road. My aunt was home. We just had a wonderful childhood. A lot of that was the contributions of our mothers and grandmothers. In today’s world, mom and grandmom are at work. They have to be. So what happens with the kids? You see the result of that.”
Johnston says he retired from UNC so he could devote himself to his work at Global Vaccines. And while he keeps a small sailboat on Albermarle Sound, he rarely finds time to actually sail it.
“My hobby is thinking about going down there,” he says.
But he holds onto the dream.
When he was a teenager, he says, he once visited some friends who lived west of Houston on a ranch with a lake, where he tried to learn how to waterski. When he had placed his feet in the skis and adjusted the tow-rope, the pilot of the boat threw the throttle wide open, and nearly jerked the rope out of Johnston’s hands. He initially stood up and skied for about 10 feet, then fell under water but held on for another 30 feet before he let go.
“I think sometimes I hold onto things too long, even as an adult,” he says. “I don’t know when to quit. There’s a lot of Don Quixote in me.”
But Johnston says impossible dreams are what keep him going.
His late wife, Jane Johnston, a nurse in the neonatal unit at WakeMed in Raleigh who died of breast cancer, devoted her life to saving the lives of children born prematurely.
“We both had the same goals,” he says. “But she had the reward of seeing positive results right away. What I’m doing is something now that might help people in 15 or 20 years or after I die.”