Walter Johnson ’60
Walter Johnson, a food industry executive and long-time peace activist, died May 12 in Hollywood, Calif. after a long battle with Altzheimer’s disease. He was 83.
Johnson was a presence in every room. Six-feet tall, handsome, boisterous and perpetually smiling, he would rush to strangers and reach out with an eubulant handshake: “Hi, I’m Walter Johnson!” On the telephone with his own children, he would announce: “It’s Walter Johnson calling.” When the New Yorker’s Roger Angel inscribed a baseball-themed book to him, Angel wrote: “To the REAL Walter Johnson.”
Johnson was born during the Great Depression in Grand Rapids, Mich., the oldest of Lyle and Ruth Johnson’s six children. He was the first in his family to finish high school (Wyoming High School), an achievement in and of its own. And yet he went on to earn a Hope College Bachelor’s, majoring in psychology (1960) and a University of Michigan Masters in Business (1962). One of his favorite memories was playing Dave Brubeck while DJing the Hope College radio station — even lily-white Brubeck seemed subversive at Hope in the 1950s.
After graduation he worked in Chicago as a Harris Bank loan officer, and worked Sundays as a sought-after singer. He led the tenor sections of well-heeled church choirs on the city’s North Side, and eventually he was matched with Jean Pickard, who led the sopranos. (“She had great legs,” he would later explain. “Even under a choir robe.”)
The two quickly became a couple. Nearly as quickly they became pregnant.
It was 1964 and Jean, about to have a baby and unmarried, was fired from her school teaching job – she was considered a “bad influence.” Their daughter Laurie was put up for adoption. (Laurie’s existence was a family secret for thirty years, until Walter sought her out in the 1990s. Laurie eventually reunited with her birth parents and they have remained close ever since.)
In 1966 the singers finally married and settled in St. Joseph, Mich. Desperate for work and with baby Cory on the way, Walter landed a job taking inventory in a Michigan Fruit Canners warehouse, manning a clipboard. He worked up the ranks to a traveling sales job, flying around the midwest selling “Thank You” brand pudding and pie fillings, singing the company jingle: “I like Thank You very much, I like Thank You very much, every Thank You thing is very welcome…”
That same year, after weeks of what Walter called “church shopping,” the young couple visited St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in Benton Harbor, Mich. St. Augustine’s was a 1960s experiment: black and white families forming a new Episcopal congregation devoted to racial unity. A week after their visit, Walter was on a ladder painting his new house when St. Augustine’s warden Roy Shoemaker roared up in his big gray Oldsmobile Cutlass. Shoemaker, a Koren War Veteran at 6’3” and 230 lbs. looked as much an NFL tight end as the civil rights leader and Whirlpool executive he was.
“Walter!” he yelled, slamming the door of the car, “I didn’t see you in church today!” Shoemaker then chuckled and grabbed a paintbrush to help finish the job. Thus began Walter’s fifty-six-year relationship with the Episcopal Church and a lifelong ministry fighting racism in America. (Shoemaker would become baby Cory’s godfather.)
Soon afterwards son Barton was born. In the mid-1970s Michigan Fruit Canners was acquired by Rochester, N.Y.-based Curtice Burns/Pro-Fac, and Walter moved to corporate headquarters, taking a position in corporate finance.
Despite living in New York, Walter kept a connection to Western Michigan, buying a cottage on Big Blue Lake, a short barefoot walk from cottages owned by his uncle, brother and parents. Walter was an avid bird watcher and sailor (he’s asked that his ashes be dispersed near Big Blue Lake’s “Turtle Bay,” where he’d cataloged dozens of birds over decades) he was fond of a slow, sunset sail to the far side of the lake – which more than once required a tow back to the cottage when the wind died.
The 1980s saw enormous change for Walter. He had an expensive divorce from Jean. They had launched “Jean’s Music Center”, a piano store, and the business failed, evaporating his savings. His sons went off to college. He was laid off from Curtice Burns. A disheartening trip to the grocery store had him digging through his pockets for what little he had left, just enough to buy some milk, Shredded Wheat and a six-pack of Stroh’s.
But at a mandated meeting with a “placement counselor” he announced that he had one remaining goal in life.
“What else do you want to do?” she asked.
“Well,” he said, “I’ve always wanted to be a millionaire.” So he slashed his already modest spending, threw himself into investing and a new job in food sales and, over the next thirty years, incredibly, achieved his goal – three times over. He pinched every penny. He continued to wear old, threadbare sweaters. He dried himself on thirty-year-old towels that felt like cardboard. And rather than enjoy his spoils or spend it on his family, he gave every dime to charity.
In 1988 he married Cedars Sinai nutritionist Geraldine Myers and they settled in Gardena, Calif. They would divorce after ten years, though they remained close friends until his passing.
In retirement, he pursued dreams inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King. As he became increasingly involved in the non-violence movement, he married UCLA professor and Episcopal Archdeacon JoAnne Leslie. Walter studied Mahatma Ghandi and taught classes in non-violence. The couple regularly protested against the wars in the middle east and, indeed, all wars. He liked to rile his relatives saying that he was “advocating to disband the US Military.” After reading a July 2000 New Yorker article about Partner’s in Health, which brings health care to some of the poorest people on earth, Walter became a generous donor. He was a vocal advocate of socially responsible investing of Episcopal church endowments, and often a thorn in the side of the Bishop. Walter was active in prison ministries, organizing bus trips for caregivers and family members of incarcerated people.
Walter and JoAnne filled the bookshelves that lined every room of their modest Santa Monica home. There were absurdly tall stacks of reading material by their bedside – and every other flat surface. Walter continued to find joy in the works of James Thurber and E.B. White. And he could not give up on his tortured relationship with Angels baseball.
He is survived by his wife Joanne of Santa Monica, ex-wives B. Jean Johnson of Rochester, NY, Geraldine Myers of Laguna Niguel, Calif., children Dr. Laurie Logan of LaCrosse, Wisc., Cory of San Francisco and Bart of Agua Dulce, Calif. and eleven grandchildren; Jamie, David and Anna, Luke, Sofia and Graham and Ruby and Aspen, Tara, Hayden, Annika and Sadie. A memorial service will be held at Holy Faith Episcopal Church in Inglewood, Calif. on July 9. The family asks that any donations be given in Walter’s name to Partners In Health.
Walter Johnson crossed to the other side of the veil last night. He was father and husband (three times each), a food industry executive and peace activist. He was 83.
My dad was a big presence in every room with a giant smile and exaggerated gestures. As hard as he worked as a corporate exec., his true life’s passion was racial equity and social justice. He made a tidy fortune and gave every dime away to charity. He taught workshops in non-violent protest, argued for socially responsible investing of church assets (and was a persistent thorn in the side of a series of Episcopoal Bishops). He was active in prison ministries, organizing long bus trips for family members visiting incarcerated loved ones. He fought vociferously against the death penalty, traveling up and down the state gathering signatures for various initiatives to save the lives of the condemned.
He loved jazz music and was a voracious reader — every flat surface in his Santa Monica home was covered with stacks of books and newspapers. He found lifelong joy in James Thurber and E.B. White and was a persistent fan of the Los Angeles Angels (also a love for the condemned).