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. Brian Lovell

    I am sorry, an apology is not enouth! Plagiarism is morally and ethically wrong. Students have been expelled from college over the years for this transgression. There is only one honorable remedy for Mr. Johnson, RESIGN. He has disgraced Northern Humboldt School District, Arcata High, the class of 2013, yourself , and your family. If he does not resign, the NHUSD Board of Trustees should take the strongest action within there power to encourage Mr. Johnson to leave. Dan Johnson, effectively cheapened what should have been a proud monument for the members of the class of 2013, their beloved school and their families. Dan Johnson must face the consequences for stealing, he must resign.

  2. Amie Haas LaBanca

    Oooof…. embarrassing…. of all the things to plagiarize, when it would have been so easy to have given credit and still shared it. Anything less than acknowledging the gravity of this mistake and voluntarily resigning would send the wrong message to our kids.

  3. Wow. Very poor taste.

  4. what a pathetic human being to express such garbage to our young people!

  5. […] Arcata Eye out of the Redwood Coast in California reports this disturbing story: A school district trustee called his graduating daughter on stage to read her a letter that […]

  6. This is test of our school board. We're counting on that institution to do its job and deliver the penalty that is appropriate.

  7. This is a very serious test of our school board! Will it step up and deliver the appropriate consequences that Mr. Johnson deserves? Many are watching.

  8. Nick wrote a letter to the board of ed insisting that Mr. Johnson write a letter of apology for his misbehavior.

  9. Thanks to Arcata Eye for publishing this story.

  10. Jessica Cejnar

    I'm not a student or a parent or even a resident of Arcata any more, but I think Mr. Johnson should write a letter of apology and read it in front of the school board.

  11. Patti Johnson


  12. Didn't Dan Johnson lose an election to the NHUSD Board twice (the first time to a child), then only wind up as a Trustee due to a mid-term appointment to a vacant seat?

  13. Rose Welsh

    He's qualified to be D.A.

  14. Dan Johnson is a lawyer? First I've heard of it. Humboldt's current DA was also elected, not appointed, and three times consecutively at that.

  15. Resign. Just resign. You are not fit to serve, no matter your political connections, or good intentions. This is soooooooooo wrong.

  16. It gets worse. It wasn't just that he failed to attribute the speech to Mr. McCullough, it was that virtually the only part he altered was the opening, where he spent three minutes explaining to the audience how he had written it himself, and not shown it to his daughter. That, and the ending…''Love Dad."

  17. Great read and INFO…

  18. Cerise Burns

    What a dope. Glad the kids caught on and are upset about the plagiarism. Nice move dork dad.

  19. Bonnie MacEvoy

    He's not qualified to be D.A. if he thinks it is legal and acceptable to plagiarize.

  20. He is the George W. Bush of Humboldt County. He will probably say that we need to invade Trinity County because they have chemical weapons, or that plagiarists need to practice their love like gynecologists…

  21. Anonymous

    Dear Mr. Johnson,

    Out of respect for the dozen or so students whom I failed for their plagiarism during my career as an English teacher, I ask you to resign your position as a board member. As our students know, this is a serious offense; you have acted as both a thief and a liar. Please set the right example and step down immediately. You can no longer stand as an effective leader of a school if you don't know what plagiarism means. An apology doesn't mean much. My students all apologized for their plagiarism, but they still received a failing grade. And most of them honorably accepted that failing grade.

    Steve Irwin

  22. […] then read without attribution a piece, most of which was lifted from the famous “You Are Not Special” […]

  23. Jan Olsen-Carr

    Time to step down. In my opinion, integrity is crucial for a School Board member.

  24. Rob Walker

    I think it is also of note that the principal had absolutely nothing to say about the plagiarism. I said it on Arcata Eye and Ill add it here for goof measure, what would Navarre say if it had been a student?

  25. Good bye, Dan Johnson AND Paula Dean. We will not miss either one of you!

  26. Dave Mahan

    I will take an opposing view to the majority of comments. What Mr. Johnson did was not plagiarism, but it was a misguided, silly joke. No reasonable person would plagiarize a piece so widely known. Obviously, with two million hits off YouTube and reported by multiple media outlets just in the last two years, I would say it was widely known. I do not know Mr. Johnson on a social basis. But my children went to the same elementary school as his, so we have crossed paths a time or two. I do know that he cares deeply for his children and community. He routinely volunteers for various duties at different fund raising events, such as car washes etc. Obviously, he does not have to be on the school board to make a living, but he does so out of the kindness of his heart. I did not say he was perfect, just a man, nothing "special" (pun intended). He made a dumb mistake, I forgive him, you can too, let's move on. The silly name calling by the "holier than thous" that have never made a mistake and asking for him to resign, PLEEESE, "can't we all just get along." Wait, who said that?

  27. I have not talked to Dan about his speech, but I do know that he works very hard to support our community and our kids. He runs a large, successful, self made business that donates tens of thousands of dollars every year to philanthropic causes. He has done and continues to do many good works. People make mistakes. Successful people who are public figures and make mistakes often get hammered in the public eye. I don't understand how Dan gave this speech without reference, but I still appreciate his huge commitment and contribution to our community.

  28. Kevin Hoover

    Students following the discussion should pay particular attention to the above comment, because it contains a valuable lesson about the way the world works.

    Never mind what they tell you in school about justice being blind, a level playing field or equal rights under law. When a well-to-do, well-connected person gets in trouble, there will be no shortage of defenders – including the same teachers who are supposed to instill in you values of fairness and personal responsibility – who rush to that privileged person's aid.

    If you have a "large, successful business," and "tens of thousands of dollars" to ladle out, you will be held to a much more indulgent standard of behavior. If you are an average person, or a lowly student who, say, copied your homework, you will have nothing.

    If you expect accountability by the wealthy offender, you will be belittled, as other commenters have, as "holier than thou," and told to "get over yourselves." The well-connected person won't even be expected to explain their actions before you are told to forgive them and "get on with your lives."

    And that, kids, is the way your world works.

  29. Dave Mahan

    I would hope the valuable lesson to be learned would be forgiveness. As to my comment, I assume we will all hear a response from Mr. Johnson, but maybe not within the timeframe necessary for a newspapers deadlines. Maybe another valuable lesson is the power of the press: good and bad.

  30. I think that perspective is important when choosing to judge other people. It is appropriate to ask Dan to take responsibility for his speech, but I am not willing to loose sight of his overall contribution to our community because of this one action.

  31. Kevin Hoover

    This story came out June 26. That's two and a half weeks ago. It's long past any deadline issue at this point, even for weekly papers. Jim, what about people who don't have the means to make community contributions? Are they not accorded the special consideration you are calling for?

  32. Kevin Hoover

    Dave Mahan Dan Johnson hasn't asked for forgiveness. He hasn't said anything. Further, are you willing to forgive students who copy their homework? Different standard there, I'm guessing.

  33. Dave Mahan

    It's obvious that you have a general bias against people, who make too much money. If you use the power of the press to write just one positive article about the thousand works of good that Mr. Johnson has done for the community, I'll forgive you, whether you ask of it or not, for the feigned indignant comments against Mr. Johnson and the school board, while trying to sell your newspapers.

  34. Kevin Hoover

    What foolishness. That's a straight-up ad hominem attack. FYI, we had a large color photo of Dan Johnson and his Rotary colleagues on page 12 of the June 19 edition, presenting a check to the Fire Department. His good deeds are in the paper all the time, How about sticking to the issue?

  35. Dave Mahan

    I believe everyone needs a little help in this world, especially students. So yes, I would hear them out and seek a just and helpful resolution. Everyone deserves a second chance.

  36. Dave Mahan

    My apologies. I erased my post.

  37. Kevin Hoover

    Agreed. And of course the students would deserve a hearing. The point is, they wouldn't be allowed to remain silent on the matter for three weeks, and have the matter dismissed without some kind of action.

  38. Ian Ray

    Dan Johnson could have come out and said that his speech was a joke. I would accept the joke explanation; it would just mean this guy has a terrible sense of humor. Instead, what we have is people coming out of the woodwork trying to cover for him with lame excuses.

    If another school board member did the same thing, there would probably be a glimmer of a story there. The difference is you all probably wouldn't go out of your way to defend that person.

  39. Dave Mahan

    I wish I had all the answers, but I don't. Nothing here makes much sense to me. I hope nothing is seriously wrong with him and/or his family.

  40. "…Including the same teachers who are supposed to instill in you values of fairness and personal responsibility – who rush to that privileged person's aid."
    And what teachers would those be Mr. Hoover? I wouldn't be so quick to judge the ethics of the teaching profession.
    Gary Glassman

  41. Kevin Hoover

    Good point. I was painting with too broad a brush, and yet too narrow in another way.

    There are surely teachers who are appalled at the example being set by Dan J. at commencement, and the subsequent failure of the school board to address it.

    Perhaps some teachers are wondering how they are supposed to teach ethics and fair play, given the glaring all-around dereliction by the people in charge. Read the district by-laws, and see what the board is supposed to be doing.

    It's easy for the district officials espouse high ideals and talk about being "for the kids" – until one of their own gets in trouble. Then it's time to create a new, more indulgent standard for a practice that would get a student in big trouble.

    On this issue, the board is acting as though the district is a a private club with no responsibility to the public. A teacher would have to think twice about speaking out against someone who is obviously first among equals.

    I know all about what teachers go through. They get crumbs and are expected to work miracles, fighting for adequate wages, even basic supplies. Then there are the toxic politics, unfunded federal mandates and sometimes, district management rife with cronyism.

    If it matters, Gary, my brother is a high school geography and history teacher, and a great one.

    But I should have used the broader term "educators," referring to the comments that openly advocate favored treatment for someone they consider special for various reasons.

  42. Kevin, I haven't seen an argument that Dan or anybody else should receive favored treatment. only that we keep perspective about judging someone for one action or mistake. The focus on asking for follow up from Dan or the school board is appropriate, but there have been many people (not you) in this conversation who have instead focused on name calling and condemning him. I don't think someone should be judged or called names because of one action like this one, however hard it may be to understand.

  43. dave regarding your comment "I hope nothing is seriously wrong with him and/or his family." i can assure you you have nothing to worry about. Dan and his children are on a lovely vacation completely ignoring this entire issue and all of the incredibly valuable lessons it should be teaching them.

  44. I was on the stage when the speech was given. I am still appalled beyond belief. The only lesson anyone is learning from this insane refusal to even acknowledge it happened is that rich successful people with private golf courses can lie and cut corners and get away it. When I went to a private high school, I was expelled for plagiarism. It was one of the most painful, embarrassing experiences of my life, but it made me a better person. I feel so sad for his children.

  45. I was on the stage when the speech was given. I am still appalled beyond belief. The only lesson anyone is learning from this insane refusal to even acknowledge it happened is that rich successful people with private golf courses can lie and cut corners and get away it. When I went to a private high school, I was expelled for plagiarism. It was one of the most painful, embarrassing experiences of my life, but it made me a better person. I feel so sad for his children.

  46. Bobby Amirkhan

    oh damn!

  47. First off, a public apology is absolutely necessary–and the sooner the better. Then he should resign to help teach students, faculty, and community members that plagiarism does have consequence, and he should acknowledge that fact.

  48. Dave Mahan

    When I read my words, I don't find that I that I stated their should be special treatment, …that was Kevin's spin. In fact, I can't imagine that "the accused" (quoting Kevin from another post) will be on the board much longer. I have heard of rich people be treated special. I've also seen rich people being mercilessly disparaged in the press. "The accused", that's special. I would hope that "the accused" and the board are working on a graceful exit from the board asap. Again, he made a big mistake, he can be forgiven. I am worried about him and his family.

  49. such a stunningly obvious course of action. appalling that it has already been 3 weeks.

  50. Caroline Martin

    I guess he thought he was smarter


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