Richard Johnson felt music in his bones, and enabled countless teenagers to feel it in their hearts.
From 1963 to 1983, Johnson led the band and orchestra programs at Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis, with a high point in 1974 of taking second place in an international music festival in Vienna, competing against bands from around the world.
“He was probably the best teacher we had in the entire time we were in high school,” said Deb Elliott-Pearson, now a doctor in Montana, who was on that trip. “He made us feel like we knew what we were doing, but that we could also improve. He was the kind of person who pushed you enough to think, ‘Yeah, I can.’ ”
Johnson, 92, of Minneapolis, died Feb. 2 after emergency hip surgery.
His daughter, Heidi Stokes of Minneapolis, said her father was a private man with guarded emotions when she was young, “but when he turned his talents toward conducting, that’s where I saw his soul, or his spirit. What he was able to pull out of a high school choir or band was incredible.”
Johnson grew up in Brandon, S.D., the sixth and youngest of a Lutheran pastor’s family. Music was a part of his life early on, and he was known for his beautiful baritone voice. Stokes once found a letter that Johnson’s father had sent to him while he served as a radioman aboard the Navy flagship USS Argonne in World War II.
“My grandfather told him to sing it out, to get through whatever the war presented through singing,” Stokes said. “For my dad, music became an almost spiritual place to be.”
Johnson graduated from Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D., with a double major in history and music, and was active in band, choir and orchestra. There, he met fellow music major Joyce Van Steenwyk; they were married for 65 years. He taught high school history and led bands in Rock Valley, Iowa; Luverne, Minn., and South High School in Minneapolis before arriving at Roosevelt.
“He would get involved in troubled kids’ lives and you’d never know. When someone helps you achieve a potential you didn’t even know was there, you live with that forever.”
Ken Strand of Chanhassen was among those who traveled to Austria and now, as an elementary school teacher himself, marvels at how Johnson managed a group of lively teenagers. He remembers seeing East Berlin and going through Checkpoint Charlie, “which was an eye-opener for a 17-year-old kid,” and exactly the sort of history lesson that Johnson wanted to combine with the music.
Strand continues to play trombone, currently with the Minnesota Valley Community Band in Chaska. “The best friends I have today are people I’ve met through music, and I owe that to him,” said Strand, who also encourages his fifth-grade students to join the school band, “telling them how important it was to me.”
Elliot-Pearson kept in touch with Johnson, saying he became a friend “long past the time he was our teacher.” She also noted how many of his former students now are professional musicians, or in the music industry, or who simply have kept music in their lives.
Known in school as the Music Man, “he instilled a love of music that stuck with us for 40 years,” she said.
Johnson is survived by his wife, Joyce; children Kristi Johnson (Gene Rebeck), Duluth, and Heidi Stokes (Brad); a grandson, and many nieces and nephews.
Music-filled services have been held.
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