His calling

Robert Johnston, a financial services representative with Milwaukee-based Next Level Planning and Wealth Management, also is a specialist at MetDESK, where he helps the parents of children with special needs plan for their future.

Through his involvement with MetDESK, Johnston helps families establish irrevocable supplementary special needs trusts to help provide their children with financial, legal and guardian support after their parents have passed on.

“Our specialty is on-site education, working with organizations, families and individuals to help them face their challenges from a financial standpoint,” he said. “My specialty is helping families understand the ins and outs of irrevocable supplementary special needs trusts. The challenge for me is to identify what is important to (parents) and to come up with strategies to attain their goals.”

As a young man, Johnston did not set out to work in the financial services field, much less specialize in helping the parents of special needs kids.

However, two events, more than 25 years apart, changed his life and his perspective, leading him to where he is today.

On Aug. 23, 1975, Johnston was standing between two parked cars, waiting to cross the street to a bar on Milwaukee’s east side, where friends were waiting for him, when a drunk driver careened into one of the cars, crushing his legs.

Johnston woke up on his back. His left kneecap was shattered. His right leg was twisted, with multiple fractures to his tibia, fibula, his heel and other bones in his foot.

It was more than an hour before Johnston saw a doctor in a nearby emergency room. And he didn’t like what he heard.

“I’m going into shock and doctors are talking about amputating my leg,” Johnston recalled. The avid skier, runner and racquetball player made a quick decision that night that shaped the rest of his life.

“I told them to take me to another hospital,” he said. “They took me to Columbia (Hospital) and called Dr. Robert Zuege (then head of orthopedic surgery at the hospital). He did the first surgery that night.”

Johnston spent the next four months in traction, and his right leg was in a cast for 14 months. He credits his friends, family and medical professionals with keeping him motivated during the long, painful recovery process. However, his true moment of inspiration came while he was alone in his hospital bed.

“I remember while I was in traction, I’m watching this kid in a wheelchair on TV who said his main goal in life was to be able to stand up and take a shower,” Johnston said. “That was like two months into traction. That was the first step for me into advocacy and working on behalf of people, to add more meaning to their lives. I felt in the back of my mind that it was something that the Lord would take me to.”

Johnston said a spiritual seed of sorts was planted within him on that day – that he someday would serve as an advocate for people who could not speak for themselves.

That seed began to sprout about seven years ago during a conversation with a friend, John Schrieffer, zone vice president with MetLife, who recommended that Johnston pursue a career with MetLife, even though he had no experience in the financial services industry.

Johnston had been working in marketing and advertising.

“The more I thought about it, the more appeal it had, the opportunity to marry the thoughts of advocacy, starting my own business and helping people through serious times,” Johnston said.

Eventually, Johnston connected with Next Level Planning and Wealth Management, which sells MetLife products, and began selling life insurance, annuities and holding financial planning seminars.

In 2003, Johnston’s wife, Jody, gave birth to their son, Harley Wyatt Johnston. Three years later, Harley was diagnosed as autistic. Harley’s diagnosis on the spectrum of autism is relatively high functioning – he reads at a third or fourth grade level and remembers things quite well, but has difficulty socializing.

“The stuff he deals with on a daily basis is incredible,” Johnston said. “It’s a huge motivator for me. He’s been a huge inspiration for me. He’s the center of my universe.”

Shortly after Harley’s diagnosis, Johnston developed a focus of estate planning for special needs kids, largely because of his own experiences.

“When I’m gone, my wife can take care of Harley, or when my wife is gone, I can take care of him,” Johnston said. “The real challenge is when both of us are gone, and how you deal with that. There are kids all over the place that need this kind of assistance. It’s both tragic and inspiring at once.”

The birth of his son and his work with the parents of other special needs kids also have drastically changed the way Johnston looks at the world.

“The biggest thing that I take from this is the difference between first place and winning,” he said. “These kids just continue on, and that’s the greatest inspiration. They’re not necessarily in first place, but they are winning. We all need to find a way to identify that win in our lives, to get the self-motivation and gratification from getting the little things.”

As Johnson’s son lives with the challenges presented by autism, Johnson faces his own challenges and continues to receive treatment for his legs for the injuries caused by the accident more than three decades ago.

Johnston has had 10 or 11 different surgeries on his legs, including bone grafts taken from both of his hips, a metal rod inserted into his right lower leg and a removal of bone in his right ankle in March. While some might dwell on the negative aspects of the injury and surgeries, Johnston is quick to point out the positives, recalling how the original prognosis was amputation.

“The accident is the best thing that has happened to me,” he said. “The fact that I’m going a little slower gives me a better view.” 

Get our email updates