Robert E. “Rick” Johnson, 1945-2012
Here is hoping those of you who read here with some regularity will endulge me a very personal piece today. My brother died Monday, much too young and, as is so often the case, without me – and others I suspect – saying all we might have said while he was alive.
Rick was a classic big brother, smart, cool – always had a girlfriend – the guy everyone wanted as a friend. I was in awe. He excelled in high school as a four-sport jock. Held school records in the long jump, quarterbacked the football team, got his little school to the state basketball tournament. I tried, with no success, to emulate his athletic prowess and he was always encouraging my efforts even when, as I now know, he knew it wouldn’t be. He went off to college while I was still in junior high school and, in a way, we lived a generation and a world apart. He became a coach and teacher and later worked very successfully in the lumber and construction materials business. My path was journalism, politics and public affairs.
University of Nebraska football coach Bo Pelini may not know it, but he has lost his number one assistant. Brother Rick bled Husker Red. As season ticket holders, he and his wife would six or seven times a year make the extraordinarily long drive from Bismarck to Lincoln for a Nebraska home game. That, my friends, is a devoted fan. I remember growing up in western Nebraska and later South Dakota and Rick driving his old Chevy out to some high hill trying to tune in on the car radio a game on a fall Saturday afternoon. This guy loved his football, but even more his family.
We would talk on the phone and generally set the politics aside – Rick was just a bit more conservative than his brother – and catch up on the latest sports and family news. He always had a story about one of the kids doing something special or, more recently, the grandkids. It will be cold comfort to them for a while, but they will always have a life-time of memories of a truly great Dad and Grandfather. He’ll be the talk of every future family gathering. We’ll be telling Rick stories for as long as there are Johnsons.
Friends have been extraordinarily kind when hearing the news about my brother this week and one inquired, in the most gentle way, about my family and faith traditions. The question, coming just at the right time, caused me to really consider an answer. All of us, intellectually at least, know that death is a part of life. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But until death comes knocking we – at least me – rarely confront the ultimate reality. My faith is summed up by the Sermon on the Mount and in the profound belief that love is all we really have. If love were not the ultimate gift from God why would such a hole exist in your heart when death comes calling?
I’m off to North Dakota to wear some Husker Red, celebrate a very good, but too short life, and to bask in the love that my brother left behind.