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Jane Clayson Johnson doesn't regret leaving career for family

Published: Monday, Nov. 22 2010 11:45 a.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — So this is what Jane Clayson Johnson traded fame and fortune for. She traded them for casseroles, car pools, Cookie Monster, laundry, ballet lessons, a house in the suburbs, a minivan, five children and a husband.

"Let me get my 4-year-old situated," she says almost as soon as she picks up the phone. "Can you wait a minute?"

You remember Clayson, don't you? She was co-host of "The Early Show" on CBS. She interviewed the powerful and hobnobbed with glitterati. She was making millions. She had an apartment in Trump Tower and later the Gimbel's building. A limo carried her to work every day. A BYU graduate, she reached the top of her profession.

Then she threw it all away, or rather traded it, for a family and the morning car pool.

"The difference between my life then and now is actually comical," she says.

In her old life, CBS sent a limo to her apartment before dawn every morning and whisked her down Fifth Avenue to the studio, where makeup and hairstylists and wardrobe people would ready her for the morning show as she studied newspapers and notes.

"Now I drive a minivan," she says. "I clean my toilets. I drive the car pool — I show up with no makeup and drive the kids to school."

She left CBS in September 2003, three months after she married Mark Johnson, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and Harvard Business School. She moved to Boston to join him, and they set up house with an instant family that included three of Mark's children from a first marriage, and Jane gave birth to the couple's children — Ella, 6, and William, 4.

She responds with one of her favorite replies to the obvious question: "There have been occasions when I would be cleaning up yet another mess in the kitchen and I would look at the TV and see an old friend or someone I had known at CBS or ABC, and see them globe-trotting or covering a big story or interviewing someone interesting, and I would be there on my hands and knees and wonder, what have I done?"

She continues. "I wouldn't trade it, and I would make the same choice in the same way at the same time. No regrets."

Her peers said she was crazy, of course — who passes up million-dollar offers and a national TV forum? But the truth is that her journalism career was a big accident anyway. In a Lennonesque twist of fate, the career happened while she was waiting for something else to happen — namely, marriage and kids and exactly what she got in the trade.

She was an English major at BYU, then switched to elementary education before she tried journalism. "I still felt that I was merely filling time until my 'real' life kicked in," she writes in her book, "I Am a Mother."

When she entered BYU, she formulated The Plan. She would graduate in four years, marry that summer, have a baby 18 months later, and then have more children every two or three years until she had five of them. She even had a list of baby names and her wedding dress picked out — McCall's pattern #7847. "I had my wedding colors picked out — peach and teal," she says. But no husband. She became disillusioned as she watched a procession of friends walk the aisle and start families.

"As these things often do, the timing was wrong, the matches weren't right," she says. "It wasn't for lack of trying."

The only thing that went according to plan was her graduation in April four years later. Her parents took her to dinner to celebrate that evening. They were at a stoplight by Liberty Park in Salt Lake City when it hit her like a bucket of cold water: Now what am I going to do? The Plan had been derailed, and she had no full-time job and no prospects for a husband.

Then the career happened. She had landed a part-time job at KSL during her senior year. That blossomed into a full-time job after she graduated. Her six-year stay at KSL was highlighted by a regional Emmy.

The career and the wait for a husband stretched into years. It appeared briefly that The Plan might be reclaimed when she married a man she met in Salt Lake City at the age of 26, but a year and a half later their marriage ended in divorce, and that definitely was not part of The Plan. She had hit rock bottom in her personal life.

By then the accidental journalist began a quick ascent to the top of her profession. She took a job in Los Angeles in 1996, working as a correspondent for "Good Morning America" and "World News Tonight," covering, among other things, the O.J. Simpson trial and Bob Dole's presidential campaign. In 1999, CBS began a search for Bryant Gumbel's co-host on "The Early Show" — "Operation Glass Slipper," they called it. Clayson won the job.

It should have been a time of elation, but her joy was tempered by the realization that she was wandering that much farther from The Plan. She was 32 years old and moving to the East Coast, single and alone.

Her parents helped her to settle in New York. She remembers her first night alone in New York, sitting in her apartment overlooking the Hudson from 30 floors up, "feeling like I might as well be on the surface of Mars. Everything felt so foreign. I was not following the plan I had for my life. I had this wonderful opportunity in front of me, which was given to me for a reason. I thought, I had better get down on my knees. I prayed. I laid it out. Here are my concerns ...."

The desire to marry among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is ingrained from youth. When it doesn't go according to plan, when marriage doesn't happen in the early 20s, men and women often experience immense pressure, either self-imposed or from parents and family members. Clayson was no exception.

Reared mostly in Sacramento, Calif., she was the oldest of three children in a devout LDS family. Her father, Carl, was a vascular surgeon and her mother, Jane, a homemaker. Their daughters, Jane and Hannah, were ambitious, musical and devoted to their faith. Their only son was the great family tragedy. David died at 11 of a brain tumor in 1986.

"It was a defining moment for me," recalls Clayson. "He was sick for only a year. I came to understand getting on my knees and praying for help and comfort. I remember the empathy I learned from watching my mother care for him and watching him struggle. It was very trying."

Jane attended BYU on a music scholarship and played violin in the philharmonic and chamber orchestras. Hannah graduated from Princeton, where she performed in the school's chamber orchestra. She then graduated from BYU's law school. Hannah met her future husband, John Smith, at Princeton and, after helping to convert him to the LDS Church, they both served church missions, then married and began their law careers in Washington, D.C. Hannah served two clerkships on the U.S. Supreme Court. Like her sister, she walked away from a lucrative professional career to raise a family with an Ivy-League husband. She has three children and lives in Dallas, but she continues to serve as a legal counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

"We had a good family life," says Hannah. "The gospel was taught in our home and we appreciated the values our parents instilled in us, and those values have guided us in our lives."

Against that backdrop, Jane was feeling unfulfilled even when her professional life was so fulfilled. Shortly before moving to New York, she received a phone call from the late Elder Neal A. Maxwell, a member of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve. He asked her to stop in Salt Lake City en route to New York so that he could give her a blessing. As she writes in her book, Elder Maxwell stated, "You must allow the Lord to use you ... sometimes you will not understand what he is doing or why he is doing it. ... You must allow him to guide you and direct you."

In New York, she was introduced to a gathering of newspaper reporters from around the country as the new co-anchor of "The Early Show." One of the first questions they asked was about her Mormon faith and her refusal to drink coffee. How could she do "The Early Show" without coffee? Her religion would be a constant source of curiosity to reporters during the next few years.

In the years that followed, she covered President George W. Bush's inauguration and the 9/11 tragedy. She interviewed First Lady Laura Bush at the White House and anchored the one-year anniversary of 9/11 with Dan Rather.

In was a demanding job. Up at 3:45. Take the CBS limo to the studio at 4:15 with her hair still wet from the shower. Read four or five newspapers and talk to producers while her hair was blown dry and brushed and makeup applied. On the air by 6:30. Fill the rest of the day with lunches, meetings, speeches and taped interviews. Dinner at 5:30. Review four or five packets, 15 to 20 pages each, containing newspaper stories, biographies and news of the day that CBS sent to her apartment daily to prep for the next day's show. Compile interview questions for the next day. In bed by 9 p.m. Start again the next day.

"There was no time for anything else," she says. "It was incredibly intense." Her only break was Sunday and teaching an adult Sunday school class in her Mormon ward.

"She never planned on that career," says Hannah. "She felt like the Lord had brought her to where she was and was using her as an instrument for some good things. She also knew that she wanted to be married and have a family. The yearning was certainly there. She lived alone. There were times that were hard. It's hard when you're that age and in a high-profile position to meet someone who isn't intimidated by that."

In February 2001, some 18 months after settling in New York, Clayson was set up on a blind date with Johnson (he likes to joke that it wasn't a blind date for him because he had seen her on TV). Hannah was asked by a friend to arrange the meeting between her sister and Johnson, who owned a Boston-based management consulting business and had recently joined the LDS Church.

"I looked him up on the Internet of his business website," says Hannah. "I did my homework. I had a lot of people over the years who wanted me to set them up with my sister. I had my screening process."

Johnson came to New York and took Clayson to the Harvard Club. They continued to date for two and a half years. "They were very busy with travel and their careers," says Hannah. "And this was a second marriage. They wanted to make sure before they jumped in."

As fate would have it, Clayson's personal life and her professional life arrived at a crossroads almost simultaneously. "The timing was curious," she says. In the spring of 2002, Gumbel left "The Early Show." Clayson continued to work with a revolving door of male counterparts while CBS searched for a permanent replacement. Clayson had her moments, none more famous than when Martha Stewart came on the show at the height of the ImClone stock scandal that would eventually send her to prison. While Stewart chopped a cabbage, Clayson peppered her with questions about the scandal. Stewart made her first public comments about the controversy without missing a chop before she finally said, famously, "I want to focus on my salad." One observer compared it to a Saturday Night Live scene; it was great TV.

But CBS never could find a partner for Clayson and finally removed her from the show. She became a correspondent for CBS news and regularly reported for "Eye on America," "48 Hours" and the "CBS Evening News."

She married in September 2003. She was 36. Her contract with CBS expired at the end of the year, and she had decided that would mark the end of her professional career, although there were temptations to continue. ABC offered her a four-year contract just hours after Johnson proposed to her.

"It was a very lucrative offer to work on prime-time specials," she says. "By that time I had made up my mind, based on a great deal of prayer and thought."

She had decided that she couldn't juggle both a career and a family; the former was simply too demanding. "She could have chosen to have fulltime help, but she wanted to be more involved in her children's lives," says Hannah. It was a momentous decision. Clayson knew that if she left TV journalism, there was no going back. She was burning the boat. "Once you get off the network news train, it's hard to get back on," she says. "I was perfectly aware of what I was doing and the implications."

Many of her peers expressed their dismay at her decision. Her agent echoed the sentiment of many when he told her it was a terrible decision. "How can you walk away from this offer, and why would you want to?" he asked, according to Clayson. "You've worked 15 years to get to this point. ... You're crazy. These offers don't come around every day. What are you going to do, move up there and teach Sunday School?"

Ironically, after moving with Mark from New York to Boston, she was immediately called to serve as a Sunday School teacher. On Jan. 4, 2004, the day her new ABC contract was supposed to begin, she learned she was pregnant.

Not everyone was so cynical about her decision. She says one CBS executive came to her office and, after closing the door, said, "I have to tell you, I really respect what you're doing. You're following your heart and principles. There are a lot of people in this building who would make a similar choice if they weren't so caught up in achievement and success."

Just months after leaving journalism, Clayson told graduates at Utah State commencement exercises in 2004, "There is more to life than a job. I didn't ever want to look back and point to a bookshelf of videotapes and say that's been my life. It's so much easier to write a resume than it is to craft a spirit. There are seasons in life. Don't ever let anyone try to deny you the joy of one season because they believe you should stay in another season ... Listen to yourself. Trust your instincts. Keep your perspective."

Talking about this now, almost seven years later, Clayson feels compelled to clarify her feelings on working mothers. "I want to make something clear," she begins. "Every woman makes her own decisions about her life based on her circumstances and her own desires. A lot of women don't have a choice. Their situations are different and they can't do what I did. Sometimes these choices come with judgment. I don't ever assume judgment of any other woman's choice. That's important to me."

Looking back, she has hard-earned empathy for women whose hopes for marriage and family have gone unfulfilled or delayed. She advised and interacted with many such women when Mark served as a bishop for a young single adult ward.

"I finally realized after many years," she says, "that if you lay out everything you have — your hopes and fears and desires and your own plan — and turn it over to the Lord — let it go and walk away — it is a liberating moment. It takes a lot of prayer and meditation and wanting to trust in something besides yourself. Trust in God's plan and don't focus so much on yourself. Go find someone else to help."

Recently, Clayson cooperated for one of the I-Am-a-Mormon video series, which the LDS Church has sponsored and made available on the Internet. It is clear that Clayson, now 43, is content and happy with her decision. In the video, she explains her feelings about her second life with a certain eloquence. "I would not trade these moments, these precious moments," she says. "It's a season of my life that will be gone with my kids in just a few years." She concludes by looking directly into the camera and identifying herself thusly: "My name is Jane Clayson Johnson. I'm a taxi driver. I'm a macaroni and cheese maker. I'm a homework helper. I'm a boo-boo fixer. I am a journalist. And I am a Mormon."

e-mail: drob@desnews.com

 

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