Gary Johnson receives Distinguished Alumni Award

Gary Johnson, a 1988 MSU Moorhead graduate, has always been passionate about computers.

As a high school junior, he purchased the Apple IIplus. His high school math teacher asked him to teach BASIC programming to his peers.

Those early hobbies eventually led him to a 34-year career with Paul Bunyan Communications in Bemidji, Minn., where he now serves as CEO and general manager. He has made it his mission to bring broadband and internet access to rural Minnesota.

Johnson is also the recipient of a 2022 MSUM Distinguished Alumni Award. The award recognizes alumni who have made significant contributions to their professional fields and communities and are at the peak of their professional careers.  

“The technology we’re offering is changing peoples’ lives,” he says. “Going forward, there’s so much potential.”

Johnson grew up on a family-run resort between Walker and Akeley, Minn. He attended MSUM because of its well-regarded computer science program. But he also was interested in studying art.

“I wasn’t sure whether I should become a graphic designer or a computer programmer,” Johnson says.

Johnson’s experiences at MSUM gave him a broader view of what was possible. In addition to classes, he worked part-time as a computer operator for Fargo’s MeritCare (now Sanford Health). Computer graphics was an emerging field at the time, but Johnson was able to design an independent study that allowed him to explore the computer as a tool for art.

“MSUM improved my confidence and understanding of the world,” he says.

After graduation, Johnson submitted his first resume to Pixar, which was a small animation operation at the time. Johnson had heard about the work they were doing with computer graphics. That job didn’t pan out.

On a challenge from his sister, who still lived in Walker, Johnson started looking for jobs in northern Minnesota. A company in Bemidji was looking for a computer programmer, so he sent his resume and got the job.

When Johnson started, Paul Bunyan specialized in offering telephone services to its rural customers. Johnson was the 23rd employee and the only one with computer expertise. Today, the nonprofit cooperative has grown to 160 employees and offers broadband services to areas where it is neither easy nor cost-effective.

“We’re focused on service rather than profit,” he says. “That lets you do a lot of cool stuff.”

Paul Bunyan is the largest broadband cooperative in Minnesota. Reliable broadband is one way to connect Minnesota’s rural communities to the services and opportunities they deserve.

“Going forward, there’s so much potential,” he says.

For example, the potential of telehealth is still being revealed. Those services mean more than a Zoom conversation with a healthcare provider. Instead, telehealth can allow patients to monitor their health with devices, reducing the frequency they need to travel for tests or routine services.

“We’re just dabbling in this, “Johnson says. “But think about all the ways that can impact our local health systems and our rural communities in a meaningful way.”

In his Bemidji office, Johnson still has the first Apple computer he bought in high school. The computer case has been autographed by Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple. The computer engineer spoke at a virtual shareholders meeting during COVID.

But for Johnson, the machine is a reminder of how fast things have change and how much is left to discover.

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