A life remembered: Bill JohnsonIf you measure a person by the admiration of his friends and family, Bill Johnson was the richest person in the world. That was the sentiment last week after Johnson died April 9 at age 85 at the Silver Bay Veteran’s Home.
If you measure a person by the admiration of his friends and family, Bill Johnson was the richest person in the world. That was the sentiment last week after Johnson died April 9 at age 85 at the Silver Bay Veteran’s Home.
Johnson had been a Two Harbors resident since the 1950s and was active in civic life and also known as the life of the party.
“He was more notable as a person than a guy with a million bucks,” longtime friend Warren High of Duluth said Saturday. He was among more than 30 people who took part in a billiards tournament late that afternoon at Dubh Linn Pub in Duluth. It was just hours after Johnson’s funeral and reception.
Johnson loved playing pool in his retirement and his sons – Scott, Bruce and David – thought it would be a proper sendoff for their dad.
It was all part of celebrating someone who often used humor to connect with people. “He would have loved today,” David said of the recollections that came with “lightness” rather than in “a heavy way.” It wouldn’t have been right, he said, to honor his dad with a lot of “solemnity or grief.” As he got details together for the pool games, he said it was “celebrating a life well lived.”
Johnson sold mutual funds up and down the North Shore and he and his wife, Lola, decided to settle in Two Harbors. He also sold cars and equipment for the mining industry. He took an active role in civic life, serving on the school board and town recreation board.
Friends and family said his true calling came later in life in counseling the unemployed. Scott said his way with people shined then, offering hope in dark times, like when Reserve Mining shut down in the 1980s. “He’s someone who listened,” David said, and it might have been the first time they felt any hope.
Scott was inundated in his thoughts last week with his father’s way with words. To say he “had a lot of sayings” is an understatement. At Johnson’s 80th birthday in 2004, a whole sheet of his quips was compiled. The man who had nicknames like “Slippery Hips” for his high school athletic prowess and “Brains” for his academics “tried to keep people off balance” with his sharp witticisms, Scott said. He had oddball phrases like “that’ll put hair on the bottom of your feet,” Scott said. He had stock stories like the one about getting “water on his knee” while playing football at Morgan Park High School in Duluth. “It traveled to his brain and in the cold winter months, things would slip his mind,” Scott said with a laugh.
Johnson held court at Judy’s Café in Two Harbors, using his gift of word play to get a rise out of the regulars at coffee in the morning.
“I liked him very much,” said former Two Harbors mayor and state representative Dave Battaglia. He said he was a cinch for the town recreation board, having been a founder of the Blue Line Club to support area hockey and the father of boys active in sports. “I know of no one who did a better job of raising a family,” he said. Battaglia admired Johnson’s “compassion” and took delight in his wit.
Pug Norlander also found a friend in Johnson. As much as he was known for his turn of phrase, Norlander said he knew when to be “quiet, and listen. Then he’d come up with something, a pun. He wasn’t a loud talker, just a great guy.”
As Johnson’s health failed in recent years, Norlander drove him to Judy’s and visited him in Silver Bay. He was there just a few days before his death and was happy that a sleeping Johnson “looked at me and then closed his eyes.” It was a goodbye.
David Johnson lives in Switzerland and wanted his daughter to meet her grandfather before his death. They arrived in time. “It looked like he was waiting,” David said. The son marvels at the traits his father passed down to his children. “She has a bit of grandpa in her,” he said.
David said it was special to see “all the elements of his life” Saturday at the funeral, reception, and tournament. It was “lots of fun and a good way to remember Bill.”
The oldest son said his dad had been with him as he left home at 18 for college at Princeton and then a business career that has put him in places across the globe. In times of trial, “his values came through,” David said. “His voice would spring into my ear.”
Friend Warren High said Johnson’s successful and thoughtful children, his one daughter, Laurie, lives in Two Harbors, are a sign of his emphasis on family and school. “He never worried about things like money,” High said. “Status symbols weren’t important.”
That was clear in one of the tales about his courtship of Lola, who remains in Two Harbors. “Stick with me, Lo, and I’ll buy you radishes as big as diamonds,” he told her. He was true to his words, his family says. It could be said she stuck with him for other baubles: his gem of a personality and that silver tongue.
“He used humor to lubricate relationships,” David said.
It wasn’t all “yuk yuk,” Scott said. “His talent was getting the best out of people.”