In celebration of Black History Month, we would like to honor a great leader and beloved member of the Canine Companions® family, John Elliott. Born in Chicago Heights, John was one of five children. At just 10 years old, his father was murdered, and John and his older brother found themselves working to help their mom support the family. Work didn’t get in the way of his education though, “My mother was a saint and she did all she could to make certain that all the kids knew the importance of getting an education – and staying out of trouble, which we all accomplished,” shares John.
Due to John’s athletic involvement in high school, finding a job was never a challenge. Sports wasn’t just helpful in getting a job, but also in attending college. John received a scholarship to Western Illinois University. Inspired by his high school teachers and professors, John pursued a career as a teacher. When John graduated, he had more than just a diploma, he had met a beautiful young lady who became his wife, Joann.
In 1964 John began his teaching career in Kankakee, Illinois. “I was one of two Black educators in one of the two junior high schools in town. To say the schools were integrated was a bit of a stretch, but Black and white students attended both junior highs. My early experiences were mixed. I was a 22-year-old teacher who was well accepted by the students, Black and white, but I struggled with the attitudes of some of the older white teachers.” After leading a student walk-out, John was noticed by the superintendent and the school board president. That notice led to John being invited to join the superintendent’s staff as the district’s director of student activities, the district’s director of public relations, and to create and teach the first Black history course in the district’s high school. “I assumed those roles in the middle of my fourth year in the school district. There was a lot going on in schools in the years in which I served in those capacities. I was highly visible in addressing racial disturbances in the district’s schools and community and was quite a lightning rod for at least three years in the district.”
The notice John received from that role introduced him to a local real estate mogul and owner of four car dealerships, Ed Bergeron. In 1972 John left the school district and joined Ed’s team as a leasing salesman at Kankakee Automobile Leasing Co. After just two years, John was promoted to president of another one of the Bergeron’s businesses, Kal Leasing Co. “I started as a leasing salesman but had the benefit of being totally embraced by the Bergeron family from the moment I joined the organization. Their acceptance of me and my family, both personally and business wise, was truly remarkable, given the time and the tone of racial relations and acceptance in the US and Kankakee in particular.” This role resulted in John and his family being the first Black members of Kankakee Country Club.
John continued to rise through the Bergeron family businesses overseeing operations of their school bus company. By January of 2000, John had become president of the second largest publicly traded school bus corporation in North America. He continued to succeed and in 2008 retired as the president and CEO of Durham School Services. Retirement didn’t last long. In 2010 John was approached by National Express Group to serve as CEO of National Express Inc, which he did until mid-2011. He was the first Black CEO of a publicly traded school bus corporation in North America. “I am mostly retired now and continue to serve as a consultant to National Express.”
The Bergeron family did more than just introduce John to his new career, they also introduced them to a Santa Rosa based nonprofit that was making a big impact in the lives of people with disabilities all around the country, Canine Companions. Jerry and Sue Bergeron served on the board at Canine Companions. In 2001, per recommendation of the Bergeron family, John and his wife Joann joined the Canine Companions board to strengthen and diversify it. “It didn’t take long for us to recognize the tremendously positive impact Canine Companions has. I have told many that our involvement with Canine Companions has made us better human beings. I challenge others to seek to define that statement because there are so many meanings. “Joann and I had the privilege of being able to serve on the board for almost 19 years. The board is the finest group of people we have ever had the honor to be around. The staff and all the workers at every level in Canine Companions bring a smile of gratitude to my face just knowing they are there.”
“I do believe there are elements of my early success that were exceptional for the time period, with Blacks facing many obstacles to success in the business world, especially in getting to the top. The capabilities, successes and exposure of Black men and women in the business world today are far more prevalent and a testament to all, Black and white, who have done, and continue to do all they can to create a level playing field for opportunities.” Although John has lived a life of success and positive leadership, his biggest accomplishment didn’t come from the office, but the doors he was able to open for others and his loving family. “I am most proud of the accomplishments of my immediate family. My wonderful wife, tremendous son and daughter in law, and the three young men who are our grandsons are the best examples of the best that human beings can be. I have been put in a number of positions over time, where my performance could serve as a measure of the capabilities of a person of color, and I believe I have enabled the doors to be opened for others to follow.”
John continues to be an active leader in the Canine Companions family. Currently he is serving as an advisor for Canine Companions Inclusion and Diversity Initiative, helping ensure we are welcoming to all communities.