Reilly met him on his very first hour as a boarder in Roscrea.
Half a dozen heartbroken 12-year olds fell in forlornly on the cold tiles of the austere front hall of the College.
For most they were experiencing the first serious separation from their mothers since the severing of their umbilical cords at birth.
And although they made unconvincing attempts at masquerading the terror all wondered what the future would portend for them.
For some, the transition from home to boarding school life, would occur in a gradual and almost imperceptible manner.
For the tall, reserved, red-haired guy beside Reilly it would be a complete and utter identity transformation.
A kindly Cistercian Monk draped in black and white robes, called an An tAthair Éanna MacIonnraic, happened to pass the group and instantly decked their despair.
He caringly went around the group asking the lads their names and where they’d come from.
For most it was a reassuring reminder that, whilst he certainly wasn’t their mother, there was a sense of safety and care and hope that things might work out.
For Reilly it was a rare case of hitting the jackpot from the get-go.
When An tAthair Éanna discovered he came from close to Connemara and spoke reasonable Irish – two of the grás of his life after God – the stars aligned. For the following five years, he and Reilly would illegally share hundreds of cigarettes, discussing affairs of the world ‘as gaeilge.’
His eyes lit up again when he cast his gaze on the tall, reserved, red haired guy beside Reilly.
‘You must be that boys brother from Waterford who was with us ten years ago!
‘No Father. I’m from Rathkeale in County Limerick and I’m the eldest in my family.’
‘Well, in that case you’re a dead-ringer for him. The height; the demeanour; the hair. Oh, I’ve a desperate head for names. What was his name at all?
At precisely that moment, the President of the College, Fr Peter Garvey, who had an encyclopaedic memory for faces and names passed by.
‘What was the name of that boy from Waterford we had who looks just like this boy?
‘Paddy Lawless,’ says Fr Peter, with absolute clarity and recall.
The former Neil Johnson never did get the opportunity to formally introduce himself.
From that seminal moment on, until the day he departed the front gates of the College five years later after completing his Leaving Certificate, he was only ever known, by student and teacher alike, as Paddy Lawless.
His name notwithstanding, he very quickly became something of a legend.
Roscrea excelled in two disciplines – athletics and debating – and aspired to be great at rugby.
Paddy Lawless would quickly become an All Ireland Champion cross-country running champion and would later become a World winning public speaker.
With his speed, height and agility he was a prolific try scorer. This would most certainly have been even greater had Reilly outside him not knocked the ball on so often and thrown him so many forward passes.
Given his formative experience in Roscrea it is perhaps little surprise that Paddy elected to study psychology in UCG.
As providence would have it Reilly bumped into him again on their first day of Freshers Week in Smokey Joes cafeteria.
Paddy was enthusiastically chatting up the ravishing Riona Madden from Whitestrand when Reilly cheerfully interrupted their amorés.
‘Paddy Lawless, you were always quick on your feet, but you just can’t rock in here from Rathkeale and rob us of our loveliest ladies,’ jested Reilly good-naturedly.
‘Reilly, I want a word. Outside.’
‘What’s your problem Paddy? If you play your cards right you could end up marrying that girl.’
‘Reilly, I want to make one message clear.
‘For five years I tolerated being called Paddy Lawless. From today on I begin a new identity. I am reverting to the name my parents choose for me.
From this day on, my name is Neil. Neil Johnson. Understood?’
Reilly didn’t need to be a student of psychology to understand implicitly.
Standing then at 6 foot 3, and toned like a current Limerick hurler, Reilly understood.
As did each of the Roscrea lads in UCG who also were firmly appraised of the change of name. By the time he graduated in 1983 everyone in Galway knew Paddy Lawless for who he really was – Neil Johnson.
Neil became a prominent member of the young Galway business community and became President of Junior Chamber Galway. In this role he won the World Speaker of the Year in 1995 and was later made a Senator of the organisation in recognition of his impact.
Ray Rooney, the Galway based business person, had conceived the idea of creating a centre for cardiac excellence in the West of Ireland. He was looking for a CEO to establish the organisation and drive it on.
Rooneys vision, combined with Johnsons executive acumen, would prove a Godsend for the people of the West of Ireland.
Neil knew at first hand the power and importance of a name and one of his primary victories was the creation of the name ‘Croí.’ Reilly acknowledged from the get-go that the name was pure marketing gold.
It’s memorable, pronounceable, suggestive of what it’s about, totally unique, and An tAthair Éanna would have wholly approved.
From his early days in Roscrea Neil had excelled as a communicator of clarity and excellence. He would now exploit this skill to explain to the people of Galway and the West the need for improved cardiac care and more specifically, the investment.
Although Reilly is biased, Neil was the pioneer of professional fundraising in the west of Ireland. He brought it to an entirely different level.
Many will still remember the giant sculpture of a thermometer in the front of the Regional Hospital that displayed how much money Croí was seeking and how much it had currently raised.
This morning, in Galway and the West of Ireland, thousands of people will wake up – Reilly included – who mightn’t have but for the purpose, leadership and acumen of Neil Johnson.
Reilly got a phone call from Don Colleran, the prominent Galway auctioneer, informing him that he needs to change Neil Johnson’s title in his phone contacts.
‘I did that 40 years ago Don,’ says Reilly smugly.
‘You mustn’t have heard Reilly.’
‘Neil has been awarded a Doctor of Laws (LLD) by The University Of Galway.
‘From now on we’re expected to call him Dr Johnson.’
- Names are important but it’s what’s beneath the bonnet that really counts.
- It wouldn’t have mattered a tráinín whether Paddy Lawless had been called Neil Johnson or The Croí Guy, or Dr Johnson or Jack Spratt – his character and actions and impact would have shone through irrespective.
- That’s the thing about the great ones. They’re not defined so much by their names as by their character and actions and impact.
- Riona Madden continues to be as radiant as ever. The hundreds of Bish students she inspired over the years will testify to this. The thing is, they may know her better as Mrs Johnson! But what’s ever in a name?
- Your identity is important and the great news is that you can upgrade it like Neil anytime you intentionally choose.
- Speed is important in life, not just on the sports-field. Those that are first-in and have a bias for urgency tend to garner the lions share of the market.
- Always remember that your primary role as a business leader is to execute. That’s what a CEO stands for. Chief Executive Officer.
- Life isn’t just about earning an income. That’s important. But if you can earn an income helping other people, like Neil, then that’s awesome.
‘If you want to be happy for an hour, eat a steak. If you want to be happy for a week, go on a holiday. If you want to be happy for life, serve humanity.’
—Dr Faisal Sharif. Cardiologist. Entrepreneur. Director of Croí.
- How powerful is your character?
- How powerful is your impact?
- How many people are feeling better today as a result of your influence?
PS. Neil (third from right in second row) was only the second most famous athlete on the 1974/75 u-13 rugby team. Tony Mullins (left in front row) partnered Dawn Run on 15 of her 21 victories. Reillys (back right top row) sporting career declined steadily with his introduction to worldly matters.