2017-07-08 03:26:54 UTC
Spencer Johnson, author of parable 'Who Moved My Cheese?' dies at 78
Dr. Spencer Johnson, author of “Who Moved My Cheese?” and co-author of “The One Minute Manager,” among the best-selling books of all time, has died. The former La Jollan was 78.
He was a little-known children’s book author in the early 1980s when he met Ken Blanchard at a cocktail party in San Diego and the two decided to write a parable for business leaders. They self-published ”One Minute Manager,” sold thousands of copies on their own, and then struck a deal with a major New York publisher. The book has sold more than 15 million copies.
Dr. Johnson then took a story he’d told to friends about two mice and two mouse-sized humans maneuvering through a maze and turned it into a 98-page allegory about change, “Who Moved My Cheese?” It’s sold more than 25 million copies, spawned teen and children’s versions, and become such a pop-culture touchstone that it’s been parodied in comic strips and books.
“He was a special, creative guy who impacted the world in so many ways,” Blanchard said.
Dr. Johnson died Monday from pancreatic cancer at Scripps Hospital in Encinitas, according to his family.
Born in Watertown, S.D. and raised in Los Angeles, he grew up planning to be a physician. He got a medical degree from the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, Ireland, did clerkships at the Mayo Clinic and Harvard Medical School, and then went to work for a medical devices company. That’s where he discovered his knack for writing.
He was put in charge of the informational material handed out to prospective patients. To his mind, it was unreadable. He rewrote it.
“He learned that he could take subjects that overwhelm most people and distill them down to the core of what they are,” said Margret McBride, his literary agent. “He would then take that and put it into a story that’s enjoyable to read, that can be read in about an hour, and that when you’re done you feel like a different person.
“What he did is, he took the cobwebs out of your brain.”
Dr. Johnson had written a 43-volume series of children’s books called ValueTales with his first wife, Ann Donegan, when he met Blanchard. They put together “One Minute Manager” in a matter of weeks. “It wrote us,” Blanchard said. They knew they were on to something when they spoke at a national restaurant convention and then after the presentation sold 1,200 copies of the self-published book in 30 minutes.
During negotiations with William Morrow, the publisher balked at charging $15 for the book, the price the authors had been getting. “You’re being a little too Little League,” Dr. Johnson said, and started to walk out of the meeting.
A deal was struck that included offering readers a money-back guarantee. Very few took them up on it, and the book became so successful it spawned a whole “One Minute” industry for Blanchard that continues today. Two years ago, the original “One Minute” book was re-written for the current business environment and it, too, became a best-seller.
In the late 1980s, Dr. Johnson moved to Hawaii with his second wife, Lesley Bostridge, and in 1998 wrote a story about two mice, one named Sniff and one named Scurry, and two tiny people, Hem and Haw. “Who Moved My Cheese?” still regularly appears on lists of best-selling business books.
His other popular titles include “Peaks and Valleys” and “The Precious Present.”
“He was always very pleased when someone would tell him how much one of his books meant to them,” said Nancy Casey, his editor and executive assistant. “He loved to mentor people, loved to help them tap into their own success.”
But he didn’t love the trappings of fame, which is why his books didn’t include photos of him on the jackets. He wanted to be able to go out in public and not be recognized. “When a person picks up one of my books and starts reading it,” he once told McBride, his agent, “I want the relationship between them and the words to be private. A photo of me is a distraction.”
She recalled how one time when his publisher insisted on photos, Dr. Johnson posed for them with his back turned, sitting at his desk.
He wasn’t offended by the various parodies that arose in the wake of “Who Moved My Cheese?” McBride said he would quip about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery. “It says a lot that someone would take a year or so trying to make fun of something I did,” she remembered him saying.
Dr. Johnson divided his time in recent years between homes in Hawaii and New Hampshire. He moved back to San Diego about six months ago and rented a home in Rancho Santa Fe while undergoing cancer treatment.
Survivors include three sons, Emerson of San Diego, Christian of London, and Austin of Honolulu; his brother, Hugh Johnson and sister-in-law Jane of Los Angeles; his sister, Constance Johnson of Los Angeles; nieces Hillary and Joelle Johnson of Los Angeles; and nephew Erick Johnson of Dallas. He was predeceased by a son, Cameron.
Celebration of Life services are pending.