The last words Harland Johnson said as I left his hospital room last weekend were: “Thanks for your time, Dennis.”
How ironic, I thought at the time, that a man who has given so much of his time to improve our quality of life would thank me for mine.
Johnson, 82, was diagnosed six months ago with pulmonary fibrosis. At the time, doctors gave the community leader 2-5 years. Sadly, his disease is an aggressive form, he shared during an interview from his hospital bed at CHI Health St. Elizabeth.
The timetable has been moved up. He said he and his family are making end-of-life plans.
News of his condition traveled fast. In the past few weeks:
- YMCA’s Camp Kitaki gave him a “Camp Kitaki Saint” award, for “everything he has done to serve and preserve Camp Kitaki,” said Chris Klingenberg, senior executive director of the Northeast YMCA.
- Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler dropped by the Lincoln East Rotary Club meeting and surprised the 55-year Rotarian with awards for his exemplary service and 49 years of perfect attendance at club meetings.
- Bethany Christian Church, where he has been a member nearly 56 years, presented him with an Elder Emeritus pin for his half-century-plus service record as well as two flags with his name embroidered on them.
- Bethany Business Association recognized him for 40 years of maintaining and expanding the Avenue of Flags up and down North Cotner Boulevard, as well as putting up and taking down wreaths during the holiday season.
- And, the Cornhusker State Games named him Grand Marshal of the Cornhusker State Games Opening Ceremonies Parade of Athletes, held Friday night (July 15) at Seacrest Field. In 2005, Johnson was named the Cornhusker State Games Volunteer of the Year.
“Harland Johnson has been part of the Opening Ceremonies Committee since the inception of the Games in 1985,” said Dave Mlnarik, executive director of the Nebraska Sports Council. Johnson chaired the committee for a number of years, served as field director for the program most years and promoted the Games wherever he went.
“He’s the guy who would do anything, anytime, to see that the Ceremonies and the Games were successful.”
Strong work ethic
“Above and beyond” is a level of performance we’ve come to expect from the community dynamo. Growing up on a farm in Kansas taught him the value of hard work. He managed to juggle playing high school athletics with milking 40 head of cattle and feeding steers. Life on the farm built muscle and developed character.
“Sometimes the cows didn’t get milked as thoroughly as they should have, perhaps, because it always seemed there was something else competing for my time,” reflected Johnson, the son of a Kansas farmer who also worked as a small-town postmaster. “But it did build character.”
It also made the Kansas farm kid more determined than ever to succeed in life.
“I remember being 15 … I was lying under a big piece of farm equipment, working to fix something at the time, and it felt it was 150 degrees that day,” he recalled.
“I was thinking, ‘I have to do well in college and beyond, because I never want to come back to the farm!”
Johnson enrolled at Phillips University in Enid, Oklahoma, earned a degree in Bible Scriptures, and served churches in Kansas. “I got run out of Texas for preaching against racism,” he said.
Fortunately for Lincoln, Johnson eventually ended up in Nebraska’s capital city, where Johnson went to work for the YMCA and in 1975 became the first executive director of the Northeast YMCA. In 1977, he started what would be a 22-year career with the Nebraska Legislature. His duties included retrofitting the Capitol building with private offices for 49 senators.
An active volunteer during his working years, Johnson ratcheted it up a level during his 17 years of retirement. He became more involved with the local chapter of the American Red Cross, where he worked 52 years with the chapter’s first-aid team, rarely missing a Husker home game in his first-aid capacity.
It was in the 1960s that he introduced the idea of a “Pass the Bucket” promotion, convincing NU football coaching legend Bob Devaney to give his blessing to a halftime bucket brigade on behalf of the Red Cross. “The first one we did brought in about $10,000,” Johnson recalled. “Today, it’s not unusual to bring in $40,000 to $50,000.”
In recent years, he’s been an active member of the Seniors Foundation of Lincoln and Lancaster County board and in its fund-raising efforts. He also hosted "Live and Learn" episodes on 5-City TV since the program's inception more than 15 years ago.
The Lincoln East Rotary Club has also been a big part of his life. Despite his weakened condition, the longtime Rotarian and former club president managed to help prepare for East Rotary’s “Sum Fun Picnic” for mentally- and/or physically-challenged children.
A man for all seasons
Johnson has truly been a man for all seasons – including Christmas, as Santa in the Haymarket, and Easter, as the Easter Bunny for University Place’s annual Easter Egg Hunt.
His legacy with the State Games has included presentation of the annual Joe Neal Award. Neal preceded Johnson as chairman of the State Games Committee and worked with Johnson at the state Capitol.
“Joe developed pancreatic cancer, and I presided at his funeral,” Johnson reflected. “The honorarium I received from officiating at the funeral was donated to the State Games to create the Joe Neal Award.”
In last week’s interview, Johnson said he dropped 68 pounds in a little over a year and had dipped below 150 by last spring.
“I was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis on January 4th of this year,” he reflected.
“I searched the internet, read everything I could about my condition and you could’ve put my picture next to the symptoms … I had all of them.”
The countless community volunteers who have worked alongside Johnson have come to always count on the friendly guy with the crew cut. When I served on the judges' committee for the Keystone Award luncheon several years ago, his history of community service jumped off the page.
The selection was a slam-dunk.
Let me join the lengthy list of those who have commended him for his community service.