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Peter Johnson continues to serve the community of Sidney

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Peter Johnson continues to serve the community of Sidney

Peter Johnson

The former mayor of Sidney may be done serving in the political arena but he isn’t done serving the people of Sidney. In the past four years, Johnson completed his law degree, passed the bar exam and led the people of Sidney as their mayor, all in the middle of a pandemic. It wasn’t what he envisioned four years ago.

“No one was running for mayor, and I thought it was important to run so it wasn’t just a blank line. That scared me. If people don’t have a choice, the democratic process doesn’t play out,” he said.

It was confidence in his ability and the prospect of making a tangible impact on the city that motivated him to run. The pandemic aside, Johnson thoroughly enjoyed his term. “It’s the closest level of government to everyday life. It’s quick and responsive. I enjoyed hearing from people who had an issue, and if there was something I could help resolve or help them navigate through those issues, even better,” he said. “It’s kind of what I do now as a lawyer.”

He didn’t always want to go into law. As a University of Iowa cinema major, Johnson said folks are always surprised when they find he is now a lawyer.

“When I explain it to them, it makes more sense. At college, I actually was part of a law learning community. I was taking a variety of liberal arts classes, and I particularly gravitated toward film, documentary film. I liked the story telling aspect of film. You watch a news report and that makes you feel one way. If you watch a documentary on the topic, it makes you get out of your seat to do something about it. It doesn’t just provide knowledge, it conveys it in a way to get people involved and want to take action,” he said. “I guess it was that fascination that took me to film.”

He believes that it isn’t a huge departure from law: “It’s similar in the ability to tell a factual story and set things in motion. It’s not far a departure as one might think.”

After graduating college, Johnson started working at the Johnson Law office to earn money so he could buy equipment to work freelance in film. “When I worked here, I realized the need to help people would be satisfying. It was difficult, and there was a learning curve, for sure. I realized that what I was seeking to do through film could be achieved here through the law office.”

It didn’t come easy. Johnson applied to law school but did not do well. It would be three more years before he could apply again to earn his law degree. “The first year, I did not do well. Maybe issues of maturity and a question of whether it was something I really wanted to do. Maybe I took the step too quickly. Regardless, I didn’t do the job I needed to do. But, I needed a job so I worked retail, not thinking I would ever go back to law school.” However, Johnson said it kept nagging at him, and he didn’t want to wonder what could have been. So he applied again and went in with a stronger purpose and renewed vision.

“I made a rule, before the pandemic. There is a hallway where all the law professors are, and they all have glass walls so you can see in. Every day I told myself I would walk down that hall past all the professors. I did this for two reasons. One, I knew I would get my work done because seeing them every day would keep me accountable. Two, they were going to know I was still there. I learned to ask for help and learned to work harder. It really helped. Obviously, I wasn’t able to do that during the pandemic, but I had learned that lesson and built a relationship with those professors. I laid the foundation to help me continue.”

It worked. Johnson graduated in May 2021 from Creighton Law School, took and passed the bar exam in July 2021 and started working as a lawyer at Johnson Law in Sidney, working alongside his father. What Johnson saw in law was the opportunity to do a wide variety of things and help in the community that gave so much to him. “It’s about being an asset in the community that I grew up in that offered me so much. I value that experience and took advantage of opportunities given to me. I want to make sure the community can continue to do that. I want to share models of success for young people. And not just models of success but models of successful people who have come back to work in Sidney.” According to Johnson, he is the first Sidney graduate in over 50 years to pass the bar exam and come back to practice in the city of Sidney. “From my knowledge, the previous person was Gene Eaton. I’m not sure when he graduated law school, maybe the 60’s. He is part of a long line of lawyers, a long legacy that goes way back.”

When Johnson’s father, Jon H. Johnson, started practicing in Sidney in 1977, there were 12 attorneys in the county. “Now there are only 4 attorneys who live in the county, and I am the only one under 70 years of age,” Johnson admitted. He feels it is essential to know the people within the community. “I think it’s important that Sidney has a lawyer who is from the town and who understands the community dynamics and has an idea of what’s going on. It means I have less to learn about situations going in. That enables me to be able to hit the ground running because I already have a lot of background.”

Johnson said it was tough to pick a favorite area of law. “Every area of law has a different aspect to it. I enjoy criminal defense. It ensures constitutional rights that are guaranteed for people and helps make sure people are being treated fairly. Their rights are being observed, considered and valued in our interaction.” Johnson also finds transactional work rewarding. “For example when someone comes in and wants to start a business, that’s exciting! I get to take someone’s idea and help in its execution to make it real for them. It’s an incredible privilege to be a part of that developmental stage.” He also enjoys estate planning because he learns a lot about families, their values, and what’s important to them. He considers it a honor to use the law to help them carry out their wishes.

Although Johnson said his dad never pushed him to be a lawyer, he said by observing his dad making an impact in the community as a coach, serving on the school board, and being active in many ways helped guide his decision. “I’m the youngest of seven, and there are teachers, engineers, designers; a wide variety of careers. We were always encouraged to find our own path. Mine just happened to come this way.”

He attributes his love of public service to both of his parents. “Our diverse careers have all been determined from what our parents have modeled. I can’t forget to mention the example my mom has set and the influence she’s had on my life. She had worked in the courthouse and for the county road department ever since I was little. The model of public service that my parents have demonstrated and continue to demonstrate has guided me and my siblings to careers where we can help other people.”

Johnson said if he is privileged enough to have his own children, he would hope they would continue to adopt the model of public service and helping people, whether that’s through the law or some other career. “I would hope that public service is their north star that guides their career decisions.”

When asked about leaving a legacy, Johnson said that he hopes people will think of him as a good person, that he helped others and was reliable. “I also want others to believe that I advocated for people here. Not just clients, but everyone. I hope people will see someone who was an asset, identified needs and sought to meet those needs for the citizens of Sidney.” He added, “I grew up in a house of problem solvers and people who serve. So that’s what I will continue to do.”

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