Earl Johnston III, a communications professional and teacher

Earl Johnston III, a well known public relations and communications professional for local health care and financial services companies who took his love for teaching to the University of Minnesota, passed away in May from pancreatic cancer.

Johnston, who was 58, was born and raised in the Twin Cities. He attended the University of Iowa’s prestigious writer’s workshop program, and studied journalism and mass communication. It was there he met and married his college sweetheart, Brenda Piper, an Iowa native.

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

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

“Earl was extremely passionate about communications; he was very much a teacher,” said Brett Weinberg, a senior director of communications at Allianz Life, and a colleague and contemporary of Johnston’s while at Thrivent Financial. “He truly cared about ensuring employees on his team were developing so they could reach their maximum career potential.”

Called a collaborative colleague who enjoyed sharing what he knew with others, Johnston took his commitment to teaching and career development to the University of Minnesota, where he taught graduate and undergraduate students in what became some of his most fulfilling work.

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 an ability to make tricky strategic communication problems understandable,” Cohen said. “He was able to instill in his students an understanding of the importance of accurate and effective strategic communication.”

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

Johnston modeled his undergraduate course after what a marketing and communications editorial calendar might look like at a large company. It allowed students to build a portfolio that was useful in applying for jobs.

During the last year, while battling pancreatic cancer, Johnston could no longer teach a full course load but served as a fellow at the Hubbard School. He continued to meet and advise masters students.

Johnston wrote eloquently about his cancer journey. On his CaringBridge site, he shared the highs and lows as the disease progressed. The posts were candid, informative and demonstrated his deep faith and love of family.

Johnston survived by his wife Brenda; daughters Madison Johnston (George Shardlow) and Waverly (Jordan) Konynenbelt. A dedicated family man, he was very much looking forward to his first granddaughter, Junia Shardlow, who was born four days after Johnston’s death.

He also is survived by 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 11 am on June 15 at Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. A scholarship fund at the Hubbard School for graduate students in strategic communications has been established in Earl and Brenda’s name.

“He would get a huge kick out of the fact that scholarship recipients will be called Johnston fellows,” Brenda Johnston said. “I think it will be a nice way for the family to continue our work with the university.”

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