Some people say anything can happen, but Jessica (Scheerle) Johnson ’06 still remembers one of the first times hearing her greatest desire was simply out of reach. Or so she thought.
She grew up in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, second of three sisters. Her father was an auto technician, and her mom raised the girls before later working 50- to 60-hour weeks managing a greenhouse to help make ends meet. For shopping or entertainment, they drove 45 miles east to the regional hub of St. Cloud.
“I always liked school and I remember seeing the Saint John’s Abbey bell tower from a distance on I-94 and the exit sign for Saint John’s University and thinking, ‘I want to go there,’” Johnson said. “So, it was a sad moment when I was in a van with my church youth group one time, and I mentioned that. The others laughed and said, ‘You can’t go there for two reasons.’
“The first one, the fact that it’s a school for men, made sense,” she added. “But then they said, ‘You could never afford it.’ My parents were blue-collar and had my oldest sister very young. So, my family struggled a bit economically. Hearing that was really hard, but it lit a fire under me. Not long after, I remember I learned that I could go to Saint John’s by going to the College of Saint Benedict, and I told my parents I wanted to go there. I’ll never forget my dad saying, ‘If you can get accepted, we’ll make it happen.’”
She knew it wouldn’t be easy.
“I worked really hard, and I watched my parents work really hard,” Johnson said. “My dad had it rough growing up, and his dream was to make sure his girls didn’t have the life he did. He would work physical labor in his 8-to-5 job and then he’d often work a night job, too, from 5:30 to 10:30. Same thing with my mom. So, I didn’t think it was possible.”
Imagine, then, the sense of accomplishment – if also foreboding – she felt on receiving an acceptance packet in the mail. Johnson hadn’t bothered to apply anywhere else.
She was surprised and grateful to receive a presidential scholarship, grants and other financial aid that ultimately knocked tens of thousands of dollars off the cost of her education.
And what happened next changed her life.
Jessica (Scheerle) Johnson '06 (left) enjoys a moment with friends and roommates during her college days.
A new identity and a new passion
“I didn’t have a lot of friends growing up,” Johnson said. “I was bullied a lot. I had food thrown at me. It was horrible. My kindergarten teacher started calling me ‘Jessie’ and there was no changing it. I was called ‘Jessie’ in elementary and high school, and I hated it. So, I saw college so much as a fresh start. When I got to Saint Ben’s, I got to be ‘Jessica.’ It felt like I was a whole different person. No one knew me and I got to be who I wanted to be, and I felt comfortable and safe here in doing that.”
Naturally, it still took awhile for her to trust others. She remained shy and guarded. But, more and more, she emerged from her shell. She started getting involved in activities with her roommates and had jobs on campus, working two years in the office of institutional advancement and another year doing graphic design for the marketing department.
By then, she’d changed her major several times and ultimately followed the best advice she ever got as an undergraduate: Identify what subject made hours feel like minutes.
That’s what her first communication class (COMM 103, Media and Society) felt like and it proved to be another pivotal point. Her instructor was Kelly Berg, then relatively new to campus but who today is chair of the department.
“We had 10, 15 … max 20 students, and we’d sit in circles, and we’d discuss current events, marketing topics, and communication behaviors and strategies,” Johnson said. “I loved it.”
She would sit down to do homework at 10 p.m., and find it was 2 a.m. the next time she checked the clock.
“I believe in a higher being and I believe there are things in your life that change your whole trajectory,” Johnson said. “Kelly Berg and that class were among them for me.”
Jessica (Scheerle) Johnson (right) can thank her father, Milo, for setting the expectation that it would be possible for her to attend the College of Saint Benedict.
CSB opens doors in the real world
Johnson freed herself as a true extrovert. During her senior year, she took a for-credit internship in communication and marketing at United Way of Central Minnesota. She worked on ad design, writing and event planning.
“Working for a nonprofit resonated with me because of my upbringing,” Johnson said. “And toward the end of the internship, right before graduation, they asked if I wanted a permanent role. I was like ‘Oh, my goodness!’ I’d just started to apply for jobs, and I was getting married that September. It was great. I loved what I did, and the mission was amazing. And, before I knew it, I was managing the marketing department for a $4-million operation.”
Jessica and her husband, Tim, had been a couple since before she came to Saint Ben’s and he has remained her most significant source of support throughout her journey – especially when she lacked belief in herself and contemplated giving up.
“When doubts crept in, he unwaveringly believed in my capacity for success,” she said. “I genuinely cannot imagine where I would be without him. He lifts me up in times of despair, shares in my joys, celebrates my achievements, and provides encouragement during moments of uncertainty.”
One of those came after she poured her heart into the United Way mission for 13 years – only to find her position eliminated in a reorganization. In devastation, however, she found a lifeline. Gaslight Creative, a St. Cloud ad agency, had worked with her to promote the United Way website and its 50th anniversary campaign, and at one point tried to hire her.
“So, I called and said, ‘I’m ready to come and work for you,’” Johnson said with a laugh. “I went there, and it was exciting to work with all these different clients and a fast pace.”
That was in 2018. She became fast friends with Gaslight co-founder Jodie Pundsack, and they shared the same outlook toward their clients and their work.
“You don’t just pick a marketing tactic because it will make you the most money or because the client suggested it,” Johnson said. “You don’t just create a logo because it’s pretty. There’s theory and strategy and you dig deep and do the research and put love and energy into it. We both have that.”
Last year Johnson started thinking about what it was going to mean to turn 40 – a milestone Pundsack recently reached.
“We’re going through the same life things, and we became best friends,” Johnson said. “I started reflecting: What are my dreams and goals? What do I want my life to be? I don’t know. I don’t remember having a lot of goals and dreams as a kid. I finally decided I just want to be happy with the freedom to make my own decisions and do what I want and love what I do.”
Jessica (Scheerle) Johnson (left) and her business partner, Jodie Pundsack, have started Evermore, Co., and already have a thriving clientele and multiple other employees.
The sky is the limit, evermore
As in previous instances, it turned out she was able to step from one opportunity to another at just the right time. Pundsack and her partner dissolved Gaslight on June 30. The next day, Johnson and Pundsack incorporated Evermore, Co., a new agency that has quickly grown to have five employees – including current Saint Ben’s senior Aly Peterson – with a need for more. (Johnson, who has hired about 30 Bennies and Johnnies as interns throughout the years, admits a little bias in where she prefers to find talent.)
At the moment, they’re all working out of Pundsack’s house, but they soon will open an office in Sartell with hopes of eventually erecting a building of their own – perhaps a creative hub, with other artists.
More than 20 years ago as Johnson and her fellow first-year Bennies were packing for college, their parents were given a square of fabric to secretly decorate in celebration of their daughters. The Sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict then sewed the squares into collective quilts. Her mom recently surprised her with a framed version of her section from the quilt. On it, her mom had hand-stitched, “The Sky is the Limit.”
Johnson recently learned just how much her parents believed it way back then. As part of their assistance to pay her tuition, they’d cashed out their 401k.
“I asked my mom why she did that,” said Johnson, whose younger sister, Kayla, later graduated from CSB, too. “She said she would do anything for her kids. They were so proud I was going to go to school there that there wasn’t any question about it.”
This fall, as she told her story on campus by the fireside in the Gorecki Conference and Dining Center, tears came to her eyes at what it’s meant to be a Bennie.
“I’ve been asked if it was my dream to own a business, and I say, ‘Never,’” Johnson said. “But I achieved my dream, 100 percent. There have been bumps in the road. Holy cow. It was never easy. I still ended up taking out maybe $10,000 a year in student loans, but I was fine with that, thankful and it was wonderful. Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s were very important because I love to talk and interact with people, and I knew a larger college wasn’t for me. I couldn’t sit in a lecture hall with 500 students. I loved this community and all aspects of it.”
She said she doesn’t consider her story out of the ordinary or very inspirational. More than a few people might disagree, and perhaps future Bennies will take note.
“I leaned on the support I had and the mentors along the way who helped me,” Johnson said. “I didn’t get derailed by thinking it wasn’t possible.”
Jessica (Scheerle) Johnson '06 holds one of the more significant mementoes from her college experience. The hand-crafted decoration from her mother is something she hopes might inspire other future Bennies coming behind her.