A Death in the Family

David Alan Johnson (8/12/1945-2/21/2006)

Former EW staff writer David Johnson fought a tenacious battle against brain cancer for some 17 or 18 years before the effects of the inoperable but benign tumor caught up with him last month in Portland. He died unexpectedly Feb. 21 of a brain hemorrhage. David leaves behind family and friends who will long remember his generosity, dignity and good humor but sorely miss his excellent company. A memorial service will be held at noon on Saturday, March 25, at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, 85789 MacBeth Road, off Lorane Highway. Please bring poems and stories to share.

David was born Aug. 12, 1945 in Eugene to Paul and Lois Hoyt Johnson. His siblings include his brother Peter and sisters Linda and Paula. David married three times, and recently Carol, Susan and Josephine gathered in Eugene to share a meal and remembrances. With Carol, his first wife, David had a son, Tim, who lives with his wife in Walla Walla. They have three children. David was really proud of his grandchildren, and he loved them very much. Grace Elizabeth, 13, is writing a kid’s fantasy called Wickett and Pickett, quiet Isaac, 8, loves to read, while David Elijah, 4, “zooms around like a tow-headed bumblebee,” his grandmother said.

David also leaves behind many others who knew him only through his writing, especially his poetry. For in this last, splendid year of his life, David realized one of his dreams: the publication by Walking Bird Press of Pitching My Tent on Slanted Ground: Selected Poems (reviewed in EW archives 7/28/05) and subsequent readings in Eugene, Portland and Bandon where he interacted with enthusiastic poetry lovers and book buyers. He is also one of the authors of Confluence, a book of poetry, along with Erik Muller and Peter Jensen.

Poetry was important to David. I think he saw his life reflected through the lens of his poems. He wrote about childhood memories, family history, school days, adult relationships, camping trips, world travels. He loved nature and culture, equally at home in the woods or in an art gallery. His gentle humor infused his work, and his clear-eyed, unsentimental gaze illuminated life’s small pleasures. But most of all, he loved people. Wherever he traveled, he made friends.

When David graduated from South Eugene High School, he was already keeping a writer’s journal. He told me how much he enjoyed connecting with old friends at a recent high school reunion. After school, he served in the U.S. Navy for two years, reading poetry in his free time. He returned and lived in a commune in Marcola called The Victory Theater. He lived in Bandon for some years. He loved to camp and fish with his father, Paul, and told great stories about a family reunion they spent on a houseboat some years back, when his mom was still alive.

Dave worked as a journalist in Eugene for a variety of publications. His friend, photographer John Bauguess, recalled Dave wrote for The Auguer in 1968-69, which was published out of the Grower’s Market building. And from 1969-1972 he wrote for Bullfrog Information Services, a pulp magazine with offices in downtown Eugene. David’s friend and fellow poet, Peter Jensen, recalled that he first met Dave at a 1970 demonstration against the Vietnam War in downtown Eugene at Broadway and Oak.

“He had a handlebar moustache and was wearing a 10-gallon hat, writing notes on a pad with a yellow pencil,” Jensen said. “I asked him what he was up to. He told me he was working for Bullfrog Information Services. ‘As a reporter?’ I asked. ‘As a media wrangler,’ he replied.”

Dave contributed to the Willamette Valley Observer until its demise and worked with his friend, Terry Rutledge, on a comic book project, Water Works: Giants of the North. Fifteen years ago when I returned to the paper as arts editor, David was a staff writer along with Jim Stiak, who died several years ago. I don’t know when Dave started working for the paper, then called What’s Happening, but he moved to Portland later in 1991, where he wrote for the Asian Reporter and the Southeast Examiner. He remained a contributing writer to EW until his death.

Here’s a poem, his very best perhaps, to remember him by:

Elegy For a Great Blue Heron

One morning he appeared at road’s end
standing calmly in sodden river wind,
scrawny, implacable,
a metaphor of stoic virtue
braced for the day’s abrasions.

Next light, I found him in the bunchgrass,
carried him downstream below the springbox,
stretched him out like a fallen chieftain
on a lotus bier of skunk cabbage
his long beak at warrior’s rest,
his legs crossed
in the rune of sacrifice,
his wings now feathers tied to bone

A prayer bundle to keep the earth
a meal for the slow fires to sing about
a potlatch
to throw it all away
to get away

to give it all away…

Dave Johnson
February 21, 2006