Life & Real Estate in Eugene, Springfield & Lane County, Oregon

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In Memorium: DON R. JOHNSON (1927-2010) --- My Brother-In Law

On Thanksgiving Day, my sister, JoAnne, lost her husband - and Douglas County, indeed all of Oregon, lost one of it's most prominent citizens.

Don R. Johnson, 1927-2010

Donald R. Johnson was a lumberman.....what we in the Northwest call someone who owns a sawmill.  Don owned six....(plus a laminated beam plant and a couple of co-generation electric power plants). He founded the first in the Southern Oregon town of Riddle in 1951.  He bought the last in faraway northeastern Oregon in 1996.

Don also owned tens of thousands of acres of Eastern Oregon ranch land - including one of his favorite places on earth, his family's getaway 4J Ranch at Spray, Oregon.  He's had his corporate jet and his political influence.  He's hunted the globe and had his picture taken with Presidents.

Along the way, D.R. learned to fly fixed wing, then helicopters. (He used to hate owning any piece of equipment he did not personally know how to operate.) Late in his career he commuted weekly to his distant mills - with his personal pilot. He was a high flying guy.  Once when a landing gear failed he had the skill and presence of mind to crash land a plane near Portland...and walk away - with his three passengers.  If I were ever on an aircraft with a faulty landing gear, I'd want someone like Don at the controls.

One the other hand, anytime you rode with him in a car on a freeway (or in a pick-up on a narrow, crooked mountain logging road) your knuckles would turn white.

 

But Don Johnson slowed down in recent years - battling the effects of strokes since 2006. His company is feeling the effects of this recession.  Low home building nationally means little forest products sold. His mills have also felt the effects of an environmentally-constrained timber supply.

Because of those twin economic nightmares, several of his mills are idle; many of the 400-500 workers his mills provided with family wage jobs now are struggling, awaiting a better economy -- some may be hoping for an extension of unemployment benefits by the lame-duck Congress.  I'm glad there is no inheritance tax this year - that means there is a chance those jobs can come back.

You can read a newspaper bio below.  You can go to D.R.Johnson.com and see details of his business operation.

 

You can come to the memorial service and luncheon to be held in his honor today at 11:00 a.m. at the Community Building at the Douglas County Fairgrounds in Roseburg (where his laminated beams hold up the roof of the grandstand). 

There you will hear from his family and the public he helped with his personal service and philanthropy. You may hear about the 25 years he served on the county's budget committee - nobody knew more about how to stretch a dollar..or a million.  You may hear from a couple of the foreign exchange students who once lived in Don and JoAnne's home and who have flown in for the occasion from other continents.  You may hear about the youth programs and scholarships he has funded and the public buildings he's helped build.  You will hear him praised as a hard worker and an honest man...who never forgot his Depression era childhood and his stint in the Merchant Marine during World War II.

 

But let me tell you some of what Don Johnson meant to me.

In my elementary school years, I remember that my "Christmas" really arrived when the Johnson's arrived.

In those early mill years, before Interstate 5, Riddle was a three-and-one-half-hour drive from our family farm near Noti, OR (west of Eugene). Don wanted his wife to be able to talk to her parents, so he had a dial telephone installed to replace our party-line (and the hand-cranked box on the wall).  He paid that bill for my parents for decades.

When I graduated from high school, still too young to join my friends in adult employment in nearby mills, Don created an under-18 job just for me that summer....my first real job off the farm.

When, the next Easter Sunday, I wrecked another brother-in-law's motorcycle (on my first ride), Don plugged me into a job in his sawmill office as soon as I was out of the hospital.  I spent my first weeks on crutches and a walking cast, living in Don and JoAnne's home and with another sister and her husband.  Don co-signed for my first car, helped me rent the first place of my own - and gave me a lot of slack as I learned about his business.

 

Not soon thereafter I left his company and went back to school.  If I hadn't left the draft would have gotten me sooner than it did.  When I finished basic training at Fort Ord, CA, he made sure my parents....who had never been so far from home...were in the stands to see me march by.

The many things he has done for my family- and especially my parents, would fill a book.

 

Let me just end by giving you some idea what it was like for me to work for him.

The sawmill office staff back in 1964 totaled just four people:  Don, a lumber salesman, the bookkeeper/controller and me.  I sat inside the entrance door and played receptionist.  I learned payroll and accounts payable and a lot of other office functions. I punched numbers into a 100-key (not a ten-key) calculator made by the Friden company.

Friden calculator, circa 1964

On my first day, Don introduced me all around.  Then he invited me into his office and closed the door.  He told me I'd really be working for Ole, the bookkeeper.  He wanted me to know that Ole was no ordinary bookkeeper; he had managed sawmills earlier in his life.  He told me Ole could sometimes be gruff and might be hard for a young (and impatient) guy like me to work for.  But he encouraged me to pay attention to Ole and promised that if I would, there was much to be learned. He said if I matched Ole's work ethic and his loyalty to the company, I would be fine.

I said I was eager to do just that.

He chuckled, said that was well and good, but continued on to say that a day would likely come when I might not be so eager and I might then wonder who was the most valuable employee around D.R.Johnson Lumber - the boss's brother-in-law or Ole, the bookkeeper.

He dropped the chuckle and calmly but firmly said he did not want me "under any illusions" when that day came.

Partly because I did know just where I stood, differences between myself and Ole were never a real issue.  Forewarned, of course, is fore-armed.  Don's counsel had been clear; his judgment had been sound; his leadership was perfect.  The eight months I spent with Ole were a wonderful experience.  But if I had not had that warning...

 

One day, having familiarity with every employee's pay check, I asked Ole why Don paid some men working on the mill's "green chain" (manually sorting lumber) a different wage than others doing the same work.  Ole said he had a pretty good idea, but encouraged me to just ask Don himself.  So, still young and dumb, I did.

Don could have been irritated by a kid, in effect, questioning his judgment and fairness.  He said, "It's simple really. Some of them are single and some of them are married."  He let that sink in just long enough for me to begin to object...as only a single young man might have done.

He went on to explain that a married man was simply more valuable to him and to the community.  He could expect less absenteeism and less alcohol problems from men with more responsibilities.  I was not satisfied that day.  But when I had a family of my own, I could see the wisdom of his view.

Of course, today no employer engaged in interstate commerce (including Don) could continue with such policies.  I am sure he did not.  But that doesn't mean he was wrong that day.

I got along so well with Ole, that going back to school was a tough choice....especially because I knew Don did not want me to leave. He had aspirations for me that a prudent man simply could not share with a nineteen-year-old as full of himself as I was.  So he didn't waste his breath and I didn't know.

 

Let me finish by showing you just what I mean by being full of myself... 

On my last day in the office, I knocked on Don's door.  I thanked him for the job, the learning experience, and the great chance to work with Ole.  

I said something like:   Ole is the most valuable employee in this company. He saves you a lot of money all the time.

Then I went just a little further, saying more...saying something, that even then, I would never have said to a boss on anything other than my last day on the job.

I reminded my employer that I knew how much every one got paid.  I said Ole deserved a raise.

 

Don was more flabbergasted than angry. He said something about how I must have been paying even better attention than he thought.

 

Several weeks later, while attending college in Ashland, OR, I received a letter from an unfamiliar return address near the mill. 

It simply said: 

Hope you are doing well down there.  Thank you for the raise.

It was signed:

Ole.

 

For at least 10 seconds, I was enamored of my huge success in influencing "the boss".

Then I realized:  Ole could not have known about my conversation with Don....unless Don himself had told him.  I certainly had said nothing of the kind to Ole - or anyone else.  I had saved my sage wisdom for the boss alone. (I was overconfident, but not disloyal.)

I grinned for about a week.... whenever I imagined the two of them laughing at my brashness.  That story still makes me smile...and brings a tear to my eye.

 

I never mentioned that letter to Don. Now he is gone. Ole has been gone for decades. I'm now probably as old as Ole was back then.

I hope the two of them are now up there together again....laughing at my lesson well learned.  And my foolhardiness.

 

I will miss Don Johnson.  There are few men I have respected as much. There are even fewer who have such an impact on my life.

 

I hope he merits a mansion above...because he never owned one here on Earth - though he could have afforded more than one. Don and JoAnne have lived for decades in a nice, but not ostentatious, three-bedroom, two-story ranch on ten acres.  It was expanded only twice - long ago to add bedrooms for a couple of foster boys.....and, more recently, to accommodate his convalescence on the lower level.

Don was always an "early adopter"; but he never adopted a nouveau rich attitude.

 

Myrtle Creek Oregon Lighted Truck Parade

If you can't make the memorial service, try to catch this evening's Riddle-to-Myrtle Creek Lighted Truck Parade as it makes it's way through both cities to Myrtle Creek's annual Chamber of Commerce winter festival.  It begins just after dark, at 5:30 p.m. right where is has since Don started it 17 years ago....on the grounds of D.R.Johnson Lumber Company.

 

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Don R. Johnson

 

July 19, 1927 - November 25, 2010

Don R. Johnson passed away peacefully surrounded by his family on Thursday, November 25, 2010, in Roseburg, Oregon. He was born in Goshen, Oregon, on July 19, 1927, to Ralph and Ruby Johnson and lived all of his life in Lane and Douglas Counties.

During high school years at Elmira High School Don met and fell in love with his future wife, JoAnne Hale. Don graduated in June of 1945 and immediately joined the Merchant Marines. Following the war, Don returned to Oregon and soon after married JoAnne in Noti, Oregon. They were married 63 years.

Don began his experience in the lumber business at a young age when he worked summers and part time in his father's mill in Veneta. When he returned from the military he started his own small logging company in the same area, but by 1950 was looking for an opportunity to expand.

They settled in Riddle, Oregon, in 1951 and immediately began building a sawmill where the current D.R. Johnson Lumber Company still stands. In subsequent years, further expansion added Riddle Laminators, Umpqua Lumber Company, Prairie Wood Products in Prairie City, Oregon, Grant Western Lumber Company in John Day, Oregon, and two wood fired co-generation plants in Riddle and Prairie City. He also owned and operated cattle ranches in eastern Oregon for over forty years.

Through the years Don and JoAnne have been active in community and civic activities. Don served on the South Umpqua schools budget committee, the Douglas County Fair Board, numerous timber industry boards of directors, and was a member of the Douglas County Budget Committee for twenty-five years. During his more than six decades in the timber industry he worked long and hard for responsible management of federal timberlands, traveling to Washington D.C. many times to lobby congress and agency officials for relief of our timber supply problems.

Don believed in helping youth get a good start in their lives. With JoAnne, he parented six foster children, hosted five foreign exchange students, and was a founding board member of the Wixson Ranch for Children. Over the years he also supported 4-H clubs at the Douglas, Grant, and Wallowa county fairs, sponsored many youth ball teams, contributed to upgrades of school facilities and established scholarships for graduates from Riddle, South Umpqua, Grant Union, Prairie City, Spray and Wallowa High Schools.

The communities where he built his businesses were especially important to Don. He conceived and sponsored the Truckers' Christmas Light Parades in both Riddle/Myrtle Creek and John Day. His companies were annual sponsors of many community activities such as the 4th of July Fireworks shows in Riddle and Prairie City, the Big John Miller West Coast Lumber Jack Show, the South Douglas County Rodeo, the Spray Rodeo and the Myrtle Creek Summer Festival, among others.

Don was also an avid hunter, taking many big game hunts in Canada and Alaska, as well as annual deer and elk hunting trips in eastern Oregon, creating cherished memories for his son, nephews and friends. He was an airplane pilot, a trap shooter, a recreational boat captain and a part time cowboy.

Numerous organizations honored Don with awards and recognitions. In 1994 the Douglas Timber Operators gave Don their “Tough Tree Award". He was named First Citizen by the Myrtle Creek Chamber of Commerce in 1998 and received their Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009. He appreciated these recognitions and others, but preferred to be involved in his own quiet way.

The greatest joy in Don's life was his family. He often said, “The kids and grandchildren are what life is all about”. He and JoAnne took their parents and children on many road trips, experiencing all of the fun and pitfalls those trips entailed. One of Don's favorite pastimes was piling the grandkids into the car for trips to the coast or Wildlife Safari-anything to spend time with the young ones. They were the light of his life and he will be dearly loved by them always.

Don is survived by his loving wife, JoAnne; daughter, Valerie Johnson; son, Rod Johnson, and daughter and son-in-law, Jodi and Shawn Westbrooks. Also surviving are daughter-in-law, Cathy Johnson and his ten grandchildren and two great-grandchildren: Jessica (Johnson) and Larry George and their daughter, Abigail of Sherwood, Kristi (Johnson) and Kyle Blain and their newborn son, Hudson of Myrtle Creek, Jake Johnson of Oregon State University and Roseburg, Katherine Johnson Eves of West Linn, and Kyle, Karlie, Kailey, Kellen, Khloe and Kolby Westbrooks of Myrtle Creek. Other survivors are his sister-in-law, Carol Johnson and her children,, Brian Johnson, Michael Johnson, Jeff Johnson and Sarah Gray all of Myrtle Creek; J.T. Taylor of Riddle and their families. Don also leaves three sisters and brothers-in-law, Wanda and Duane Brooks of Myrtle Creek; Phyllis and Hal White of Eugene, Oregon, and Audrey and Tom Brown of Vancouver, Washington, and more than twenty nieces and nephews. Also loved as family are the five foreign exchange students, Petra Lippert of Germany; Anders Persson of Sweden/Quebec;, Patricia Monroy of Mexico; Angela Baldino of Brazil and Tiia Kesio of Finland. He was preceded in death by his parents in the 1990's and his dear brother, Duane Johnson, in 1975.

Don's family invites the public to a celebration of his life on Saturday, December 11, 2010, at 11 a.m. at the Community Building of the Douglas County Fairgrounds, Roseburg, Oregon. A lunch buffet will be served at the conclusion of the service.

Remembrances in lieu of flowers, may be made to the South Douglas Food Bank, P.O. Box 470, Riddle, OR. 97469 or the donor's favorite charity.

Don lived a full, generous and loving life. Countless friends and family will love and miss him forever. He is gone but will never be forgotten.

 

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Jim Hale

Principal Broker / Owner

Graduate, REALTOR Institute             e-PRO

2015 Member, Million Dollar Club of Lane County

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Comment balloon 22 commentsJim Hale • December 11 2010 08:43AM
In Memorium: DON R. JOHNSON (1927-2010) --- My Brother-In Law
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On Thanksgiving Day, my sister, JoAnne, lost her husband - and Douglas County, indeed all of Oregon, lost one of it's most prominent citizens. Donald R. Johnson was a lumberman… what we in the Northwest call someone who owns a… more