Civic leader was ‘one of those people you enjoyed getting to know’Life-long area resident Herb Johnson died this week. A public servant, a politician, an active church member and a dedicated volunteer, it would be difficult to narrow down Johnson’s most distinguished accomplishment.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
Life-long area resident Herb Johnson died this week. A public servant, a politician, an active church member and a dedicated volunteer, it would be difficult to narrow down Johnson’s most distinguished accomplishment. Perhaps friend and colleague Terry Twomey said it best.
“Herb was a real contributing member of society,” Twomey stated simply, “– a real giver and always a positive personality.”
Johnson passed away Saturday at the age of 85 at Essentia Health Care in Duluth. His legion of friends, coworkers and acquaintances turned out to honor his life’s accomplishments at Tuesday’s visitation and Wednesday’s Mass of Christian Burial at Queen of Peace Church in Cloquet. Throughout the week, the memories and fond recollections of his life began pouring in.
“I went to visit him at the Cloquet hospital just a few days before his death,” said Twomey, who was active at Queen of Peace alongside Johnson, and a colleague when Johnson served as Cloquet Fire Chief and Twomey was Carlton County Sheriff. “We reminisced about our old softball days. Herb was a good batter, and we could always count on him to hit a line drive down the right field line.”
“Herb was a rare person,” reflected Cloquet City Administrator Brian Fritsinger, “– one of those people you really enjoyed getting to know.”
Johnson was born in Mahtowa and graduated from Cloquet High School in 1944, going on to serve in the United States Navy from 1944 to 1946. He married his wife, Eunice, in 1947 after graduating from Duluth Junior College.
A subsequent job at Wood Conversion in Cloquet soon led to an offer to join the Cloquet Fire Department in 1948 when Johnson was only 22.
“That type of work was the furthest thing from my mind at that time,” Johnson later admitted in a 1996 interview. “It did sound like something that might be of interest to me, so I took the physical and the written exam and passed. I went to work there the following April – and remained for 38 years. It obviously was to my liking!”
Johnson said the department worked on some pretty serious fires at the time, especially at Wood Conversion. They also added ambulance service to the department in 1949, and Johnson was among the first to be trained in emergency medical response and often taught first aid classes out in the community during evenings and days off.
Always something of a physical fitness buff, Johnson worked at staying in shape by running to work and back every day, a habit he carried on into retirement. He was active on the Cloquet softball scene for many years, playing in the adult league for the Knights of Columbus and helping to organize, manage and play on the area church league.
After 28 years of working his way up in the department, Johnson was appointed fire chief and served in that capacity until his retirement in 1986.
Soon after Johnson’s retirement, he attained a goal he had considered for many years – the position of city councilor for Cloquet’s Third Ward.
“He made a huge impact on our community,” attested Fritsinger, “and he represented the people of the community so well. He listened – and he cared.”
Johnson served on numerous committees and special task forces, also serving on the Business Enhancement Task Force to consider options for the economic future of Cloquet.
Johnson was one of those kinds of people with a soft heart and high energy level who found it hard to resist someone in need. He delivered Meals on Wheels to seniors, and was involved in the Power Lunch reading
program at Washington School for more than 20 years.
“He was such a kind, gentle soul,” said long-time Power Lunch coordinator Brenda Fryc. “He really related well to the children, and he contributed so much to the program for so long.”
He was also a driving force in finding a new location for the Cloquet Senior Center – a process that consumed a number of years before finally ending up at its current site in Pine Valley. When he was asked by Sarah Lucas, co-coordinator of the Guardian Ad Litem program, if he would consider becoming a guardian, he accepted. He went on to work with a number of case files, meeting with countless young people and getting to know them in order to advocate for them in family court.
“I couldn’t be more proud of those kids if they were my own,” Johnson once attested.
Johnson became a citizen advocate at Pinewood Learning Center to help out a neighbor who attended there, accompanying him and others on outings, assisting with sports events and providing transportation.
One evening, as Johnson was skiing at Spirit Mountain, he encountered the disabled son of an old friend of his who was participating in the handicapped skiing program with the Courage Center. When the program advisor asked if he’d consider working in the program himself, he agreed to undergo the special training required. One night a week for two months out of every winter, Johnson would take handicapped skiers down the hills at Spirit Mountain in a sled-like device at the end of a tether.
“To hear them laughing and hollering to their friends is just great,” Johnson said. “They really, really enjoy it.”
A skilled carpenter, Johnson lent his considerable talents to the local Habitat for Humanity group, and when Queen of Peace decided to pursue a major building project a number of years ago, Johnson was asked to co-chair the $2 million fundraising campaign.
Retired Cloquet Area Fire District Chief Jim Langenbrunner, who worked with Johnson for 11 years and also played ball with him, said Johnson was “a good guy.”
“We got along well,” said Langenbrunner. “Once he retired, I got to know him socially as well, and I thought the world of him and Eunice.”
Johnson made no secret of the fact that the best reward for his life’s work was not the accolades – though they were many – but the smiles on the faces of those he helped and the satisfaction of seeing a project through to completion.
“All of the activities I am involved with, or have been in the past,” he once said, “could be summed up very easily by saying they are truly a labor of love.”