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Jim Johnson leaves legacy of community service

By Staff | Jan 28, 2010

Jim Johnson insisted that his wife, West Maui County Councilwoman Jo Anne Johnson, keep serving the community in elected office rather than stay home and care for him.

KAANAPALI — Known for his fun sense of humor and devotion to his wife, James “Jim” Wardner Johnson passed away in his Kaanapali home on Jan. 10. He was 84.

He is survived by his wife, County Councilwoman Jo Anne Johnson; a son, Stephen S. Johnson; a daughter, Lyn (Richard) Goben; and a brother, Pete Johnson.

A Celebration of Life was held last week Tuesday at Makawao Veterans Cemetery.

Mr. Johnson was born on Jan. 6, 1926. Education was always important to him, and he attended Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Connecticut, as well as Admiral Billard Academy in New London.

He graduated from Harvard in 1947 with degrees in cultural anthropology, sociology and psychology.

Mr. Johnson served in World War II in the U.S. Air Force as a B-29 Aerial Gunner from 1943-46, “and if you look at some of his photos on display, he was quite the dashing man in uniform,” said Jo Anne at the service.

His career and business accomplishments took him to New York and to the U. S. Virgin Islands before coming to Maui.

He rose to vice president status for both Marsh and McLennan and William M. Mercer in New York, became a safety diver for Joe Vogel Dive Company and served as a resident consultant to the government of the U. S. Virgin Islands.

“When we met in the Virgin Islands and had decided to marry, he insisted that he wanted the approval of my family, so he sent my mom a ticket, and she met us in New York,” Jo Anne recalled.

“The Empire State Building, a Broadway play called ‘Happy New Year,’ drinks at Trader Vic’s, brunch at the Plaza and a hansom cab ride through Central Park bring back such fond memories. I remember clearly when the three of us exited the cab, the driver said to my mom that her husband was a prince of a fellow, and my mom said back to him, ‘Well, he’s not my husband.’

“The driver quickly retorted, ‘Well, whoever he is, he’s still a prince of a fellow!’ Somehow explaining the relationship didn’t seem so important, and we laughed all the way to the art museum… Needless to say, mom gave him the seal of approval.”

The couple launched Johnson Insurance Associates of St. Thomas, and after they moved to Maui, Jim helped Jo Anne run for public office.

“For a man who was married to a very public servant, he was really a very private person. He loved me and never missed an opportunity to tell me so every single day of his life, and I loved him in return and cared for him, as he would have cared for me if I had been the one who was ill. While Parkinson’s Disease took his health, it never took his sense of humor. He was ever the card, right up to his final days,” Jo Anne commented at the service.

Many people did not know about Mr. Johnson’s wide interests and accomplishments. He was an NRA-certified instructor, he loved the ocean both as a sailor and as a certified SCUBA diver and he had a passion for photography that resulted in thousands of photographs being taken the couple’s more than 30 years together.

“When he recounted tales of swimming with Sandy the dolphin, diving in Cuba at the Isle of Pines, body surfing on the shore in Bridgehampton, sailing with his friends, duck hunting and goofing around with his many friends at Harvard, his eyes would light up,” Jo Anne explained at the service.

“On the serious side, he spoke of parachuting from a B-29 during the war; enjoying time with his family while looking at old photos of Lyn and Steve growing up; talking about when his dad suffered a broken back and how difficult it was for them financially; about how his mother, Lucille, spent her days taking care of him after he had a serious fall which caused him to be wheelchair-bound at the age of five; and how many surgeries he endured throughout his life.”

All of his life, Mr. Johnson gave back to the communities where he lived. He served as chief of the Bronxville Auxiliary Police in New York and director of Gramatan Rifle and Pistol Club, and volunteered in the St. Thomas Shooting Association, St. Thomas/St. John Chamber of Commerce and the St. Thomas Council of the U. S. Navy League.

On Maui, he served as a director for The Masters at Kaanapali Hillside and the Boys and Girls Club of Maui.

In Mr. Johnson’s Memorial Booklet, Colin Hanlon of the Boys and Girls Club noted, “I wanted to convey to you how wonderful Jim was, and that all the important work he did to make the West Maui community better will be remembered… His commitment to giving back to his community will be his legacy. Jim will truly be missed.”

Former County Councilwoman Michelle Anderson saw Mr. Johnson serving the community by his wife’s side.

“Jim Johnson was a warrior gentleman, always engaged and ready to stand up for the little guy. He loved his community and he loved Maui, and he willingly sacrificed his time with his loving wife to the benefit of the community. He fought his last battle with courage and humor — a real gentleman warrior,” she stated in the booklet.

Mr. Johnson also served as a trustee of Waiola Church, adjutant of Post 8 for the American Legion, West Maui Civil Defense coordinator, West Maui Citizens Patrol member, Lahaina Open Space Society member, intervener on the North Beach contested case hearing and as his wife’s senior advisor.

“His kindness, his intellect, his wit, his gift for communicating, his leadership skills, his pride in being a veteran, his old fashioned ways, his loving nature and his overall generosity were the things that made him such a remarkable man. He was loved not only by me, but by those who knew him and those who cared for him,” Jo Anne said at memorial service.

“He was a man who celebrated life and who took every opportunity to enjoy it to the fullest. He always said his greatest joy was to see me smile. He lived honorably and contributed much to society, and he insisted each election season that it was more important for me to remain in office where I could make a positive difference, than it was for me to stay home taking care of him. He sacrificed much of our time together, because he loved Maui and he loved her people. He said that he never wanted to leave Maui, and his only wish unrealized was the dedication of a West Maui Veteran’s Cemetery, where he could be laid to rest under the rainbows.”

Jo Anne also shared funny stories about her husband’s love of cookies. Ana Saafi, who helped Jo Anne care for him, called Mr. Johnson the “Cookie Monster.”

“He always said that since life was uncertain, you needed to eat dessert first,” she commented.

Another funny story was when the couple’s cat, Buffy, charged the dining room table and made off with Mr. Johnson’s prized bacon (he loved bacon and eggs).

“The next thing I saw was Jim… chasing after Buffy the cat, who was running off with the entire batch of bacon sticking out either side of her mouth and looking like she had a handlebar mustache. The cat won, and we both rolled on the floor at the comedy of the scene,” she joked at the service.

On Veteran’s Day last year, she asked what he was going to celebrate.

He quipped, “I’m going to celebrate that I got up this morning!”

“His other favorite comments, when asked how he was doing, would be, ‘Well, I’m still above ground,’ or ‘I’m still on the right side of the grass,’ Jo Anne told the audience.

She said she will do her best to see that her husband’s final dream of a Veteran’s Cemetery in West Maui one day becomes a reality.

“Jim made a difference, and this world is a better place because he lived in it. I honor his life, and I celebrate the fact that he shared a good part of it with me and the kitties by his side,” she concluded.

Donations can be sent to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, Church Street Station, P.O. Box 780, New York, N.Y. 10008-0780, or to Hospice Maui, 400 Mahalani St., Wailuku, HI 96793.