Courtesy of Dez Johnson

Dez Johnson says waking up at 4 a.m. is the best part of his day. He admits it’s the hardest part, too, but never loses perspective: “There’s some people that don’t even get a chance to do that.” Somehow, I don’t wonder if he snagged this quote from an Instagram influencer’s story. For a person like Dez, it feels sincere — that even the simple act of waking up is a way to pay homage to the world around him.

Normally, I would be intimidated by the kind of person who jogs with his Pomeranian husky at that hour, but Dez’s presence puts me at ease. And there’s a reason for why he rises so early: his 6-hour shift in the Benjamin Franklin College dining hall begins promptly at 6 a.m. In addition to the dining hall, Dez works at a multimedia studio he founded almost a decade ago, and doesn’t get home until almost midnight. Immediately, I can tell that he is a person of great ambitions. But I learn that he is a rare type of overachiever, one with the capacity to savor each moment.

Dez seems to make time bend to his will. It’s baffling how he manages to practice his brushstroke technique, go on “dates” each week with his 14 nieces and nephews at Donut Crazy and take a course on real estate through Gateway Community College, in addition to working two jobs. The simple explanation is that he works tirelessly, though he probably wouldn’t put it that way. “It never really feels like work,” he says. “When it starts feeling like work you should switch out and do something else.”

Dez is a man of his word. He left Central Connecticut State University — where he was pursuing a degree in business —after two years of college. “I felt that they gave me everything that I needed within that first year or so, and then I left, started the business downtown and never looked back.” He used to make music, but decided he is more suited to behind-the-scenes work, and plunged himself headfirst into that. He still has a strong artistic streak, though — and perhaps a bit of a competitive one. He says he paints to relax and hasn’t yet painted anything he would show another person. When I ask if he’s satisfied with that, he pauses for a second, and I already know the answer.

“I just feel like when that one piece comes along, I won’t be able to stop showing people,” Dez says. “Until then, I’m working on it.” In his own words, he strives to be the ultimate Renaissance man, constantly building new skills and switching up his routine. He does things that scare him, too. The most exhilarating and terrifying thing he did in the last year was jet skiing, when the jet ski flipped over and hit the water. He recounts this nonchalantly: “Live once, right?”

But Dez also has an eye on the long game. He pieces his life together in what he calls a “two-year plan”, the less terrifying cousin of the five-year plan. An entrepreneur at heart, he aims to create something new every two years. His course at Gateway is a stepping stone towards his goal two years from now: to build a real estate firm. To mitigate the high homelessness rate in New Haven, he wants to buy up properties and rent them out to low-income New Haveners. A lifelong Elm City resident, he’s no stranger to the violence and poverty that plagues New Haven. On the Yale-New Haven divide, his solution is an interpersonal one. “We’ve got to continue to intertwine,” he says, “to be more accessible to each other.”

Right now, this is Dez’ sixth year working at Yale, and he is relishing it. He’s especially proud of being a Franklin employee, saying he and his colleagues play a key role in building the Franklin community. “You come to Franklin, you feel a different vibe than when you go anywhere else, especially when I’m here, you know?”

He laughs, but there’s some truth in this. Dez seems to make family wherever he goes. This is no accident; he challenges himself to meet three new students each day, ask them about their days, and develop a relationship. He estimates that he has a personal relationship with at least 70 percent of Franklin students, but more impressively, they trust him like they would any close friend. Dez is regularly asked for advice on Yale students’ love lives, and he does his best to share what he knows, admitting that sometimes he’s figuring things out as much as they are.

For someone who’s been in the workforce for many years now, he’s remarkably tuned in to the life of a college student. The homesickness: “I figure you can’t always talk to your mom or your dad or your best friend, so I can try to fill the void of somebody to talk to.” And the performance anxiety: Dez remembers students’ midterms schedules, and when they disparage their abilities, he tells them to “speak it into existence, you did well.”

Dez understands something fundamental about the human connection, which is that it’s something you have to work at, day after day. But it’s evident that this is the work where he finds the most joy. His secret to making friends is “putting out the energy you want to receive.” He tells me he’s never had problems doing that, and I believe him.

Dez breaks out into a smile when he talks about his 9-year-old daughter Ayanna, who he describes as “nine going on 90 … an old soul.” Dez tells me that he was the same way when he was a child. Indeed, his essence strikes me as consistent: joyful but never fake, purposeful but never high-strung. As I sit in the Benjamin Franklin Common Room trying to put him on paper, I’m struck by the reality that I won’t be able to capture him — not fully, at least. But Yale is lucky, because Dez is never too far away — only a mile up on Prospect Street. He is worth the walk.

Ella Goldblum |