Learning Life Lessons & Dancing in the Rain
With a focus on making the best of whatever life throws your way, Kathy Mays Johnson gives back to San Antonio with heart and passion.
A woman of clear passions, Kathy Mays Johnson lives life to the fullest, laughing, loving and giving of herself to her family, friends and community. The President of the Mays Family Foundation, Johnson embraces life to the fullest, guiding the foundation to make community impact and carry on the family legacy.
Johnson’s heart for community service began as a child and blossomed in college. That commitment to giving back and helping others was fostered by her parents, as well as her grandparents, who led by example. With that road map, the family stays mindful of their civic duties and need to support those in need, making the foundation part of the family legacy, helping support causes that aid, empower, enrich and educate.
“Our mission statement is to support the communities in which we live through causes that empower and educate. It’s broad, and yet it’s specific because it’s mostly about San Antonio and strengthening this community,” she explains.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever read a bad proposal. In some way, shape or form, it’s always helping somebody or something.”
The Mays Family Foundation’s commitment to medical causes centers on cancer, a disease that continues to touch the family. Both of her parents have had cancer. Her youngest brother has also had cancer. Johnson herself is living with a rare form of follicular thyroid cancer and carries a gene mutation called Lynch Syndrome that predisposes her to cancer. Her mother carries the same mutation but her daughter, Paige, a junior at Texas A&M, by the grace of God, does not.
Johnson had her first tumor removed at the age of 38 and she’s been battling cancer ever since. She’s in a clinical trial now in hopes of making strides against the thyroid cancer she’s working to manage. “It goes to show the importance of the funding behind all of this. Five years ago, very few knew what immunotherapy was, but now it’s part of most serious cancer treatments. Science has a tendency to catch up and in so many ways, it’s just getting started. Clinical trials are part of that.”
The foundation does not directly fund medical research, instead focusing on facilities to increase the availability of treatment across San Antonio and South Texas. In spite of her personal challenge with the disease, Johnson looks at life sunny side up. “I have a very deep faith. I like to wake up and tell God, ‘Thanks for giving me another day.’
“Life is what you make it. I’m a big believer in learning how to dance in the rain rather than trying to avoid it. In the bigger picture, it’s really an important skill to be able to be inspired by anything that you happen to be hit with that day.”
In addition to her role with the Mays Family Foundation, Johnson currently serves on the Advisory Board of the SMU School of Journalism, the Board of Trustees of the United Way and the Board of Governors of the Mays Cancer Center. The list of boards and organizations she’s served in San Antonio is broad, touching every corner of the city.
“I’ve had enlightening moments through my life that have led me to where I am. From being a Big Sister back in college, to volunteering with my sorority, to working for a non-profit when I got out of college, it’s all connected. I feel like God placed me there because he wanted me to learn,” she explains.
Her commitment to giving back includes having served as the Chairman of the Board and President of the Charity Ball Association, as well as the Advisory Board of Texans CAN; President of the Cancer Center Council (CTRC); President of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation; President of Young Art Patrons (SAMA); the Advisory Board of the Animal Defense League; the Blue Ribbon Committee of the Girl Scouts; the Advisory Board of the Cancer Center Council; Family Service Association; Task Force to Strengthen the United Way; Big Brothers Big Sisters and the San Antonio Public Library.
“I’ve worked with amazing organizations. But when we started the Mays Family Foundation, I made a conscious decision to step back because I felt a conflict of interest. I wanted to be detached from organizations so that everyone was equal. I couldn’t be involved with everyone and didn’t want it to appear that we were only supporting groups where we had personal involvement.
She and the foundation take their grants seriously. “It’s hard giving money away. You want to be fair, you want to give where you know it can truly make a difference. You have to weigh the grants and assess the impact, ensure the funds go where they’re needed most. There are a million different needs. It’s funding the right need that can make the most impact at the time.”
Nothing illustrates that concept more than a story she shares from 9-11. Before the foundation was established, Johnson’s career included 25 years at Clear Channel Communications, the family business that began when someone defaulted on a loan and Lowry Mays ended up owning a radio station. It took years before what ultimately became Clear Channel really took off. The company had stations that broadcasted to New York City and like everyone else, wanted to help.
“We talked to the Red Cross and found out that the fire department needed boots. The rubble was hot, melting the soles of their boots. They needed more boots and they needed lots of them. So that’s how we helped, we bought them the equipment they needed.
“Who would have thought? In the midst of all that was happening, they needed boots. I think it shows that you don’t always know what someone needs. It’s not so simple, and yet it is,” Johnson recalls.
That thread of answering a community need is key to what the foundation does. The Mays Family foundation has awarded more than $170 million in grants thus far. “It’s a real tribute to my parents and their belief in giving back to the community,” she notes. “Serving others is just part of the footpath of their lives. My father’s father died when he was young. At the time, someone from the YMCA gave him a gold coin and said, ‘You know, you’re welcome here every day of your life.’ It was a wonderful thing for him to have a safe place at that age that fueled him to wanting to give other children that same opportunity.”
“And my mother is from San Antonio. Back in those days, everyone was community oriented. You knew your neighbors and you helped people. I can remember her chairing fundraisers and all of us kids rolling silverware, and playing a role in the process of the fundraiser.”
For people who think of the size and scope of what became Clear Channel Communications, that may sound strange. “That first radio station sparked a passion for dad, but it took a long time. It didn’t just happen overnight.”
And even when business truly took-off, nothing was handed to Johnson. “My parents instilled an incredible work ethic in me. I worked every single summer from the time I was 16. It’s how my parents grew up and how we grew up. It’s how my daughter is growing up. You don’t learn the value of a dollar until you work to earn a dollar.
“And until you work from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., you truly don’t know what it’s like to work. I think those are good lessons for young people.”
In Johnson’s case, after college, she began her San Antonio career working as the Development Director for Big Brother and Sisters before joining the family business, progressing through Clear Channel Communications.
“I had a career, for 25 years at Clear Channel, working my way up. I was in the office 30 minutes before anyone else and 30 minutes after everyone left. Not only was I a woman, I was the boss’s daughter. I had to do more to prove myself.
“Women, especially in the early days, had to work twice as hard to get the same respect as men. They still do. It’s just the way the world is.
“But I think women have made great strides. I would tell a young woman, you’re just as strong as a young man. Every person is unique in and of themselves and you have strengths you don’t even realize that you have.”
At this stage in her life, Johnson is inspired by a friend’s perspective. He told her, “I’m at a point in my life where I am doing the things I want to do and not the things I think I need to do.”
“For all of the wonderful advice and guidance I’ve received over the years that has really resonated with me. It helped me realize that there are things I want to do now. I’ve already done most of the things I need to do in this life.”
She now treasures the time she has to connect with others. “Relationships are so special because you’re learning from every single person you meet. Every person that you meet who comes into your path has something to teach you. You may not know what it is at that moment. You may not know for 20 years. But then the light bulb goes off and you realize the lesson.”
Valuing people, not things, is key to who Johnson is. “It doesn’t matter where you go in life, what you do or how much you have. It’s who you have beside you. It’s about people more than anything else,” she says.
For Johnson, that includes a network of friends, her close knit family, her beloved daughter Paige and her husband of 34 years, Bill. “He kept me laughing from the moment I met him and I haven’t stopped laughing. He just sees the positive in life and he’s been very good for me in that sense.”
When it comes to life lessons, Johnson reflects on her grandfather’s adage, “‘Life really ought to be lived backwards.’ Isn’t that great? You would know exactly how to live it, what was important, what you need to spend your time on, what you didn’t need to waste your time on – all those things. I love life lessons, but you have to learn them yourself. You can be told a life lesson, and my daughter can attest to that, but it doesn’t sink in until you live it.”
By Dawn Robinette
Photography by Jason Roberts