Navigation Menu

Byrne Johnson

December 20, 1929  –  December 2, 2023

 

Celebration of Life

 

In Loving Memory

OBITUARY

Byrne Lee Johnson, “a true Rainy Lake boy”, died December 2nd in his home, weeks before his 94th birthday. Born December 20, 1929, in Hibbing, MN, to Don and Layna (Cobb) Johnson, he arrived on Rainy Lake in early January of 1930, to reside in an uninsulated cabin at Camp Koochiching where they served as caretakers from 1929 to 1936. Moves from there to become caretakers at the Dahlberg estate on Jackfish Island and then to their own place on Norway (Hvoslof) Island in 1944 form the foundations of Byrne’s extensive knowledge and story-telling of the life and history of Rainy Lake.

 

He left the area after his graduation from Falls High in 1948 to attend the University of Minnesota on a full scholarship, join the Navy, attend the Coast Guard Academy and ultimately graduate from UMD in 1955 with a degree in business and economics. These years were interspersed with time on Rainy Lake, to work a summer at Camp Koochiching, for the Sprague enterprise on Red Sucker Island and to run Norway Island Camp.

 

In 1954 he married Jane Edwards, and until 1967 they lived in Midway Township, MN, raising four children. Byrne worked as an industrial engineer for US Steel, first in the production plant in Morgan Park and then for the DM & IR Railroad. This was when he first was engaged with computer technology, building a computer in a boxcar to test railroad track, but limited to 8K of memory by US Steel. During those years he was involved in local politics, elected in 1956 as Town Clerk of Midway Township, and later he ran for the Minnesota House of Representatives. And always the return to Rainy Lake for canoeing and camping with family and friends. A company transfer in 1967 to the Bessemerand Lake Erie Railroad required a family move to Pittsburgh. It was there that Byrne and Jane joined the staff of the Ecumenical Institute/ Institute of Cultural Affairs as volunteers in local church renewal and community development. The next years were rich and filled with many changes. During much of that time Byrne expanded his experience into the growing field of computer technology, working for On-Line Systems in Pittsburgh, Chicago and England. His marriage to. Jane ended in 1974.

 

In 1976 his path with On-Line and the Institute of Cultural Affairs led him to the Isle of Dogs in London, where he met and married Carole Bond, with whom he shared the rest of his life. They enjoyed regular visits to Rainy Lake, often for the seasonal opening or closing of Norway Island. In 1984 Byrne and Carole moved to Ranier primarily to become the family’s caretakers of Norway Island. As an independent contractor Byrne wrote the initial computer programs for many small businesses in Borderland, such as inventory, payroll and reservation systems. He was actively involved in the founding of Koochco, a precursor to the current county economic development efforts, and in the initial studies regarding pollution levels in Rainy Lake that led to the sewer systems extending east of Point-of-Pines. For many years he served as Koochiching County’s representative to the Arrowhead Area Agency on Aging and was part of the founding board of Koochiching Hospice. Most recently he was on the board of the Koochiching Historical Society and shared his lore and love of Rainy Lake at many History on Tap events.

 

After his father’s death in 1991, Byrne completed what he described as his “lifetime accomplishment”: the transcription and publication of Don Johnson’s 10%, five volumes from his father’s journals which chronicle the life of the Johnson family as well as the life and history of International Falls and Rainy Lake from 1944 to 1987. This work plus his lived experience made an invaluable contribution to the preservation of the history of this part of Borderland. His extended family are also deeply grateful for his role in the preservation of the living family legacy of Norway Island.

 

Byrne joins in death: his parents Don and Layna Johnson; his sister Sally Jernberg; his brother Don (Buck), Buck’s wife Dale, and their son Terry; his son-in-law Len Millard and his children’s mother, E. Jane Johnson. Byrne is survived by his wife of 47 years Carole; his children Etta Johnson-Millard, Brad Johnson, Sheila Johnson and Tara Johnson and her husband Tim Padesky; his sister Karen and her husband John Gustafson; brother-in-law Jim Jernberg, Sr.; and sister-in-law Linda and her husband Larry Myers. In addition he will remain in the hearts and minds of his grandchildren: Erin Franklin (Andy) of Hoover, AL; Matthew Jenkinson (Edith) of Ranier; Don Johnson of International Falls; Claire Johnson (Columbus Fontenot) of Crowley, LA; Nicholas Padesky and Layna Padesky of LaCrosse, WI; as well as his great-grandchildren Emma and Cade Franklin, Angelo Cuccio, Zuko Fontenot, Madalynn and Thatcher Jenkinson, one great-great grandson, and numerous nephews, nieces, and former in-laws.

 

Our family is eternally grateful to the hospice staff, friends and neighbors who loyally supported Byrne and Carole these past two and a half years. A Celebration of Completed Life will be held at Faith United Church on December 20, 2023, Byrne’s 94th birthday, at 11:00 a.m. Live streaming will be available on the Zion LutherChurch social media platforms. The family will plan for distribution of ashes after ice-out. Memorials are preferred to any local organization in need of support.

EULOGY

My brother Byrne was born on December 20, 1929. Our brother Buck had turned three in September. Our sister Sally was born in February of 1932. At the time of Byrne’s birth our parents were 19 and 23 and were living in an unheated cabin on an Island on Rainy Lake. I, who slipped into the family in 1946, onto the Johnsons’ third Island home, have no first hand knowledge of my siblings’ childhood. I grew up hearing the stories – of that other time, of a family who wore its uniqueness gently, who embodied values of hard work, generosity of spirit, tenacity, playfulness and good humor, gratitude and in so many ways proffered grace and goodwill throughout their lives. And they treasured me and welcomed me into their early adulthood and their own growing families and then let me grow up.

 

I mention this now because in 1991 when the four of us siblings gathered after our father had died, all remembered and could identify the poem that Etta just shared, (Abou Ben Adham)*as an enduring part of the canon of our family’s faith, a thread connecting us across the decades of age that separated us from birth and held us all as ones born and bred above all else to love those with whom we share this earthly life. When in the last few months Byrne and I had occasion to review the chronology of his life and to think together about the emerging bottom line, this poem came up as a request to be offered on this occasion. He could still recite it from memory.

 

Many of you may have noticed that today, Byrnes forever birthday is very close to Christmas. This fact and its accompanying consequence in the gift department was noted year after year. One time I noted that our family opened presents on Christmas Eve while most of the “norma families I knew waited until Christmas morning. It was explained to me that since we were not burdened with a belief in Santa Claus and the house was warm in the evening – not so in the morning, it made sense that we open presents on Christmas Eve. Sensible solutions regularly trumped romance and superstition in our family well into my lifetime and it extended to gift giving as well. The story I heard repeatedly that illustrated this was that the proximity of Byrne’s birthday made it possible to use this as a time to provide gifts of pairs: One skate for the birthday; the second for Christmas; one ski for the birthday; one for Christmas. One year, the story goes Byrne, whose job and privilege it was to carry water up from the hole in the ice, was gifted a shiny new galvanized water bucket for his birthday. A break in the tradition of pairs? Not so. A second one was presented for Christmas with a note on the value of balance and symmetry. My recollection was that even our Dad recognized that sometimes a gift is not a gift and the tradition was abandoned.

 

Byrne was apparently an adorable child, precocious and engaging. Mrs Dahlberg, for whom my parents worked from 1936 to 1944,  offered to buy Byrne for an apparently tidy sum, explaining to my mother that she (Mrs Dahlberg) could not bear children. They, she and her wealthy husband, could give Byrne all of the privileges that our parents could not and that my mother could have another child if she so desired, to replace Byrne, as it were. Had they taken the deal, we would not be here today.

 

What Byrne gained from not being sold into wealth and privilege was arguably off-set by a different set of riches. The life our parents chose for themselves and their children built in us a strong sense of self sufficiency, independent thinking, skill in problem solving, resourcefulness and trusting and engaging personalities that comes from exposure to a wide range of people from many social strata.. The shadow side of this cluster of gifts found occasional expression ( especially in the second and fourth of the Johnson children)  as excessive certainty, stubborn attachment to an idea or ideal, self righteous indignation and occasionally an unconscious disregard for the consequences of our decisions.

 

At best these qualities combined with a sharp intelligence made it possible for Byrne to graduate from Falls High School at the top of the class of 1948 having taken every Monday off to help our parents at Norway Island. He earned a Mando Scholarship and went for a year to the University of Minnesota where her learned to play Bridge and the limits of his charm and resourcefulness resulting as he said to me, “being invited to not return.” Here followed a a time of military service in the Navy and Coast Guard – the highlight of which was to sail the Atlantic on the tall ship Eagle which took him to Copenhagen and home in the early 1950’s.

 

Somewhere I read that the driving force in human life is desire seeking its limit, that it is this seeking that is comes from a restless heart. As I reflected with Byrne on his life in the past several months, it has occurred to me that it was this time between his graduation from high school and his marriage to Jane Edwards in 1954 where he gave full expression to that restlessness. It was during this time that he experienced the fullness of freedom that economic depression and war had taken from the generation before him.

 

And always there was the stuff of story. The voyage of the Eagle; the hitchhiking to Yellowstone; even his return to Rainy Lake for a summer of work at Camp Koochiching carried the seeds of claimed freedom. His way of taking on the world that would allow him to remain connected by his roots while asserting his own version of the Johnson identity.

 

I was just old enough to remember his homecomings. He always showed up in the fullness of his being. Mom and Dad and I spent the winter of 1952 renting a small house not far from where they would build the following year. Byrne came home for Christmas. Mom and I had met a Swedish family on the train on the way back from a short trip to Minneapolis. A young mill manager candidate, his wife and young son fresh in from Stockholm. My mother invited them to our house for Christmas dinner. Aside from the time on the train and the generosity of the invitation, and that Dad was a Swede, they knew nothing about our family. Byrne arrived home just hours before their visit. They called us (on our first telephone, ever) Byrne snatched up the phone when it rang and said, “Johnson residence, butler speaking.” Imagine their surprise to find us in a tiny rental on road to lake…

 

This playful, often irreverent spirit, fueled and was fueled by his passion for the story. He had a sense of humor in the very best interpretation of that phrase. Not only was he funny – with a delightful sense of comic timing, but he was able to sense humor and appreciate it in others. I feel certain that everyone of you here knows of what I speak and will  find him in a joke, a quip or a story.

 

I think it is fair to say that one of the most challenging and complex enterprises in modern life is when we unwittingly set about to make a living, a marriage and a family all at the same time when our brains are not even fully developed. Byrne’s family with Jane Edwards was no exception. For all his smarts and resources, the model of what it meant to be a traditional mid 20th century husband and father with a career and a mortgage was just developing.

 

The resources of which would make Byrne a great Industrial Engineer and forerunner in technology  (self sufficiency, independent thinking, skill in problem solving, resourcefulness and trusting and engaging personality) were more likely to assert their shadow sides in the relational enterprise of marriage and family.

 

AND, like so many families grounded in strong religious and cultural values, loving and supportive extended families, and in this case an enduring sense of place,  Byrne and Jane managed to pass on many of their best capacity and intention to their children and the next generations as well. Loyalty, caring, uncommon intelligence, self sufficiency, independent thinking, skill in problem solving, resourcefulness and deeply engaging engaging personalities.

 

Like so many families of the time, it was a career move that signaled the sea change in the Johnson family – a move to Pittsburg and a spiritual, social awakening that accompanied an association with the Ecumenical Institute and Institute of Cultural Affairs. Byrne and Jane were divorced.

 

 

Another work transfer took Byrne to the Isle of Dogs in England where he participated in a community development project for the Institute of Cultural Affairs and where he met Carole Bond who, after an astoundingly short courtship agreed to spend the next 47 years as his wife and whose unwavering love and loyalty and especially in the past several months were a gift to Byrne and to the rest of us who loved him.

 

 

Byrne and Carole’s return to the Northland came along with their wish to support our parents in their aging and to see to the care of our beloved Norway Island. It became a second chance to offer the very best of the Johnson legacy to this community that had welcomed us and nurtured by then us for over five decades. A list of Byrne’s activities appears in the obituary printed in your order of service.

 

And we cannot close this time without a moment of homage to what Byrne himself considered his “lifetime accomplishment”, the transcription and publication of our dad’s journals. On a personal note, I am grateful that my father knew just enough about my shadowed past to help me, as I age, to remember the highlights of my own life. But the unique and irreplaceable account of life as he saw it that captures the essence of a time – a good time; a hard time; a time whose universal values of self sufficiency, independent thinking, skill in problem solving, resourcefulness and are sustained by deeply engaging personalities who remain and continue to tell the stories.

 

I visited Byrne and Carol regularly these past few years. We recited the poetry and sometimes sang the songs we had learned from our father and mother decades apart. We remembered the song fests and the holidays and sometimes shared bits of collected wisdom. He seemed always to have so few illusions about his imperfections, the impact of his shadow, both the sharing and the squandering of his gifts. It was clear to me that he he had found a way to live in that tension between the “dark abyss from which we come and the dark abyss to which we  return.”

 

 On our last visit he reminded me of the following quotation by James Truslow Adams: There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, that it ill behooves any of us to find fault with the rest of us.”  And from Dag Hammerskjold: “For all that has been, thanks. For all that is to be, ‘Yes!

‘ ”