That Wasn’t So Special, Dan

Wednesday, June 26, 2013
Dan Johnson reading Wellesley High School English teacher David McCullough, Jr.'s “You Are Not Special” speech as though it was a letter he had written to his daughter at the 2013 Arcata High School Commencement Ceremony. Submitted photo

Dan Johnson reading Wellesley High School English teacher David McCullough, Jr.’s “You Are Not Special” speech as though it was a letter he had written to his daughter at the 2013 Arcata High School Commencement Ceremony. Submitted photo

Eye Staff Report

ARCATA – If the Oyster Festival still has people chattering, so does the Arcata High School Commencement Ceremony at Humboldt State’s Redwood Bowl June 13.

For the commencement address, speaker Dan Johnson called his daughter, an AHS student, up to the stage and told her he was going to read a letter he had written to her – but that she had never seen before.

Johnson then read without attribution a piece, most of which, attendees say, was lifted from the famous “You Are Not Special” speech given by Wellesley High School English teacher David McCullough, Jr. to that school’s class of 2012.

Many of the students recognized the speech, as they had done a rhetorical analysis on it for their AP English class last year.

One “disgusted” AHS student was struck by the “the irony that we get in trouble for copying a peer’s homework, and a boardmember gets away with stealing an entire graduation speech.”

Calls placed to Johnson, NHUHSD School Board President Mike Pigg, Superintendent Chris Hartley and AHS Principal Dave Navarre weren’t returned.

Letter to the Editor: Painful betrayal

When Mr. Dan Johnson, member of the Northern Humboldt Union High School District Board of Trustees, took the podium at the Arcata High School graduation in Redwood Bowl on Thursday, June 13, he announced his intention of sharing a letter he had written to his daughter.

Instead, he read aloud marginally altered excerpts from a commencement speech which Mr. David McCullough Jr. delivered to the graduating class of Wellesley High School, Massachusetts, in June, 2012.

Perhaps Mr. Johnson thought that nobody would notice his plagiarism, despite the fact that a video of Mr. McCullough’s address has registered more than two million viewings on YouTube.

If so, he was mistaken. Several of Arcata High’s seniors had studied Mr. McCullough’s speech during the preceding school year and were therefore painfully aware that their graduation ceremony was being marred by a supposedly respectable authority figure laying claim to something that rightfully belonged to somebody else.

Having taught at Arcata High for 18 years, I know that my colleagues and I repeatedly stress to our teenage students that merely altering the occasional phrase or omitting the occasional paragraph does not change the fact that one is lying and stealing when, without attribution or acknowledgment, one presents someone else’s work as one’s own.

Mr. Johnson betrayed the very principles of academic integrity that Arcata High seeks to instill and uphold. He owes an apology to all who attended this year’s graduation, especially the graduating class of 2013.


Iain Macdonald 


Letter to the Editor: The cheater must apologize

Thank you for casting the Eye on Dan Johnson’s plagiaristic oration. Since my son Aidan  graduated last week, I was in the audience. I wasn’t sure what the point of Mr. Johnson’s rather overlong speech was, but had to give the man credit for being one very clever writer. Immediately after the speech one of Aidan’s friends informed us that the man didn’t write the speech at all.

Going online with “you are not special” I found that Mr. Johnson lifted about three quarters of his speech verbatim from a teacher named McCullough – who wrote it last year for a commencement in Massachusetts. It had been widely covered by pretty much all the national news outlets, from Fox to the Times to NPR.

All of which raises some serious questions about Mr. Johnson’s judgment, especially as it applies to his representing the Northern Humboldt High School District School Board.

Right off the bat, asking his daughter, without warning, to come and stand silent on center stage while he read “his” lengthy and rather preachy letter to her – in front of a couple thousand people… Well, let’s just say I know my boys wouldn’t have appreciated me putting them in that situation. It seems a severe misreading of what it is to be a teen.

Then, of course, what was he thinking? That maybe no one else had access to the Internet, or even TV? Given today’s circumstances, he might have been safer doing the Gettysburg Address.

And there is the matter of acknowledgement. He owed it to Mr. McCullough to give the man the credit he deserves. Period. I would never expect someone to buy one of my paintings and then sign it with his own name and give it to someone else.

But the big question is, what kind of message does the school board want to send to its students? My own kids have been dinged for just one or two paragraphs borrowed a bit too liberally from an online source. When they have an assignment, they’ve learned that they have to think for themselves – and they have to put in the time and the work that an original product requires.

Mr. Johnson, quite frankly, didn’t do his work. In the process, he has sent students the message that cheating and cutting corners are OK.

Whether or not Mr. Johnson believes those means should be employed in writing, or any other work, they are definitely not principles that should be tolerated by the school board from one of its members. At the very least he owes some public apologies all around — to the students, to the school board and to Mr. McCullough.

Alan Sanborn



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73 Responses to “That Wasn’t So Special, Dan”

  1. Angie Blackburn-Harder

    Shame on you, Jonathan Webster. I am with Dave on forgiveness. If all of our "less than righteous" moments were to become public, I imagine many of us would be walking the line of shame. Even you, Johnathan.

  2. Carla Lowe Baku

    Bravo, Kevin Hoover, well put. This is not a matter of "forgiveness." It is a matter of ACCOUNTABILITY FOR ONE'S CHOICES. Whatever his intentions, Mr. Johnson made a poor choice and should be held wholly accountable. If I choose to drive 80 mph in the safety corridor, the CHP who pulls me over doesn't give a damn that I'm on my way home from a charity fundraiser where I just dropped $500 in the kitty. When one of my students chooses to plagiarize, it is not my job to "forgive," it is my job to point out his or her lapse in judgment; the consequences of that lapse are a natural outgrowth of a bad decision.

  3. Not surprising! The speech giving at my son's 2011 AHS Graduation was not much better. Essentially the speech was comprised of many random quotes which were just obviously pulled off the internet and just stated one after another. There was no credit given to anyone who was quoted.

  4. Dave Mahan

    Jonathan, the guy has been beaten down. …I'll offer him my hand and not another kick in the back.

  5. Angie Blackburn-Harder

    Have any of you stopped to consider how your contributions have impacted Dan's daughter, who deserves NONE of this? Not from her father, nor from YOU.

  6. Kevin Hoover

    Of course we have. That's why she is cropped from the picture and not named. At the same time, we are not going to ignore a story that the community is concerned about. But it's a mistake to blame the messenger for the news, which was made by Mr. Johnson, not us.

  7. Dave Mahan

    I wonder how she felt when she saw her father referred to as "the accused"?

  8. Kevin Hoover

    Probably not too good, but then, he is being accused. And this would have followed the news that a lengthy personal letter her father said he wrote to her was composed by some man she never met.

  9. Dave Mahan

    Pride is one of the seven deadly sins. Both Mr. Johnson and your paper seem to suffer from the same affliction. Mr. Johnson may not have known what plagiarism was when he delivered his speech? I think that makes more sense then your paper assuming he tried to pull a fast one over a couple thousand people. Mr. Johnson should have explained what happened, when it was brought to his attention. But "stupid foolish pride" got the best of him and continues to do so. And "pride" keeps you from admitting that the defamatory reference "the accused" should not have been used. That is just awful! Terms like this also send a message to others that it is OK to slur him? Is that what a paper is about? I guess I can't blame him for not talking considering the overwhelming volume of negative comments made against him.

  10. Ian Ray

    Right… didn't even know what plagiarism is. I've got another good excuse: thought nobody would notice.

  11. Kevin Hoover


    First, you seem to be conflating comments by others with what we have reported. We have never "assumed that he tried to pull a fast one." How could we know that? We reported what he did.

    Second, and by the same token, you purport to have insight into both Dan's and our inner motivations and emotional landscape ("pride"), when all you really know is what we have done.

    Third, Dan is being accused of an ethical breach, a serious accusation for a school board member. Is the existence of this accusation something you dispute?

    On that note, I'd like to point out that when you argue that Dan be forgiven, that assumes that he is guilty of something. That's kind of premature, don't you think?

    The calls that he be forgiven are little different from the ones that he apologize or resign in that they make various assumptions and short circuit any rational process.

    Process is all I have ever called for, and that would involve, among other things, the accused person explaining just what happened on his end.

    It would also include the missing-in-action NHUHSD board actually doing something consistent with its by-laws.

    Without process, we have nothing. If we dart about taking ad hoc actions based on someone's popularity or unpopularity without some rational procedure, we have mob rule, and civilization basically crumbles.

    Finally, consider making arguments not loaded with logical fallacies. Your recent comments include the tu quoque, the argument from final consequences, argument from personal incredulity, false analogy, argumentum ad ignorantiam and the apparently irresistible ad hominem.

    The endless credentialing and extolling of Dan's indisputable personal virtues and community mindedness might be some kind of argument from authority as well. They are certainly off topic. We're talking about an alleged breach of ethics, something no one is specially deputized to commit.

    The man simply owes his community, the students and educators under his direction an explanation. He will make one eventually, but the board is allowing this situation to fester, and deepen the widespread disillusion. The board doesn't meet till Aug. 11.

    What's the big problem with doing the right thing and speaking up? Wouldn't that be the adult, professional thing a community leader would do?

  12. It is a sad page in the history of the Northern Humboldt Union High School District that one of its leaders publicly committed the worst of academic violations, and not one person in the leadership position of that district, whether the board members, the superintendent, or the principals seem to have the courage to apologize or condemn such actions in the public forum in which the violation occurred.
    According to Websters Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, "to plagerize" is "to STEAL and pass off the ideas or words of another as one's own; to commit literary theft."
    In the academic world, plagiarism is one of the most egregious violations of integrity one can commit. And to that very issue, we have the case of a Northern Humboldt Union High School District's board member doing just that — in his commencement speech to the students this past June.
    Board members (with the exception of one, whose comments seemed anemic in relationship to the violation committed) have been silent on the issue, and emails dealing with the issue have not been answered. School leaders have shown a plentiful lack of leadership and/or opinion on the issue. A board meeting is scheduled for August 13th to "discuss vetting future speeches." Right. That is akin to the proverbial slap on the wrist by the dean when a student shows up to school drunk or when a student slugs a teacher.
    We have an epidemic of plagiarism in our nation's academic world, yet when a school board member, one who is supposed to be respected for embracing the highest ideals of academia, is the one committing the worst of academic offenses, something more than a slap on the wrist is in order, especially since the board member has of yet refused to make a public apology after having been long since "outed" for his violation of academic principles.
    To that end, I am including some words that the board member may freely plagiarize:
    “I am resigning my position as board member of the Northern Humboldt Union High School District, effective immediately, because I plagiarized my speech to the graduates of 2013, and because I did not have the personal integrity or courage to publicly apologize for my volition of public trust after I was discovered. Because of these two errors in professional judgment, I am no longer worthy of holding such a position of public trust and honor.”.

  13. Isaac Cash

    I am very happy you are speaking out about this Allan Edwards. This is why you are one of the educators I have always had tremendous respect for both as a student & as an adult. The conversations you had with me when I was a student have played a large roll in my going back to school to become an educator now as a 39 year old man. I wish more teachers in this district would speak up about this. My professors at Saddleback College take plagiarism very seriously. In one of my on-line classes we had 10 cases of plagiarism during the first three weeks of summer session. Our professor did a whole unit on plagiarism, requiring the entire class to take a test on it before she accepted any further assignments.

  14. Sarah Straus

    Yeah, I think resign too. That is crazy. I can't believe he hasn't apologized at least.

  15. Isaac Cash

    "Plagiarism is defined as presenting someone else's work, including the work of other students, as one's own. Any ideas or materials taken from another source for either written or oral use must be fully acknowledged, unless the information is common knowledge. What is considered "common knowledge" may differ from course to course.

    a. A student must not adopt or reproduce ideas, opinions, theories, formulas, graphics, or pictures of another person without acknowledgment.

    b. A student must give credit to the originality of others and acknowledge an indebtedness whenever:

    1. Directly quoting another person's actual words, whether oral or written;

    2. Using another person's ideas, opinions, or theories;

    3. Paraphrasing the words, ideas, opinions, or theories of others, whether oral or written;

    4. Borrowing facts, statistics, or illustrative material; or

    5. Offering materials assembled or collected by others in the form of projects or collections without acknowledgment." (quoted from Code of Student Rights, Responsibilities, and Conduct, Part II, Student Responsibilities, Academic Misconduct, By action of the University Faculty Council (April 12, 2005) and the Trustees of Indiana University (June 24, 2005).)

  16. Isaac Cash

    Now take this test. When you get 100% you can tell me he did not commit plagiarism

  17. Scott Wayman

    Allan, in class I quickly learned your high expectations were driven by respect for the capabilities of your students. All these years later I still appreciate what a rare and valuable gift you gave us. In contrast, the speakers disdain for his audience clearly indicates he is grossly unqualified for the position he holds. Swift action should be taken to remove him. Allowing him to resign extends more courtesy than he deserves.

  18. Scott Wayman

    I haven't lived in the area for many years and I don't know Dan Johnson so when this issue was brought to my attention I wondered why no action had been taken be the district leadership. With some research it is easy to see that Johnson has made many contributions to the district and community. Apparently this has created the perception of, or perhaps a real, conflict of interest for the district leadership. Johnson's ability to contribute is not the issue. His fitness for leadership calls for a higher standard. He has failed that test. That doesn't mean he can't continue to contribute to the district in other ways. In fact, if he is removed from his position he will have another opportunity to demonstrate his character and make amends. Now the remaining question is whether or not the rest of the district leadership will demonstrate their fitness for duty at the upcoming board meeting.

  19. […] Six weeks after delivering a plagiarized commencement address at the Arcata High School graduation ceremony, NHUHSD Boardmember Dan Johnson responded last week with a written statement of […]

  20. Scott, I looked into this issue and had to realize that the superintendent's and principals' hands are tied. They CANNOT alter Johnson's position. Only the public can. But I still believe that the districts' administrators and teachers could have made a public statement about how wrong plagiarism is, and how they do not allow it in their schools or classes. But hey, look what happens to critics and whistle blowers: they're the ones who get punished and the arrogant bloviators seem to be given license to do whatever the hell they want to do. Pugnacity and bullying, coupled with the occasional decent civic contribution, seems to be the key to success in these early years of the 21st Century, right before the Christian Mullahs take over everything.

  21. […] County Superintendent of Schools Garry Eagles, referring him to the Eye’s initial June 26 story on the plagiarism and asking his thoughts. “Should we seek advisement from a lawyer? Ignore it? […]

  22. […] has been criticized for using without attribution large portions of a speech composed and delivered by Wellesley High School […]

  23. Dave Mahan is the worst kind of apologist–a sincere person whose standards shift according to the person, not the offense. "Standards" are often seen as relative, but where in education is a "dumb mistake" excusable because "gee, I didn't know." Unless Johnson is also ignorant of the law a basic tenet is "ignorance of the law is no excuse." If it was a "mistake" say so and then you can move on. In the absence of that get out of the educational non-charitable position you have tarnished.


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