Friday, March 2, 2012

God bless and keep Erik Dorr Johnson

Today, Friday, March 2, would have been Erik Johnson’s forty-ninth birthday. Erik was a year older than me, and we ran cross country together at the University of the South in Sewanee,
Tennessee. I say we ran together. Erik was one of those tall and skinny guys
who ran way ahead of me.

Erik was a biology major at Sewanee. When you major in the hard sciences at Sewanee, you disappear for hours and days at a time in the science building. In my day these students were “Woods Lab Rats.” Today, with Spencer Hall being added to the science and math complex, I’m not sure what they call these kids. This much I know. For over one hundred and fifty years, the
science labs of Sewanee have been producing graduates who make our world a better place.
I’ve kept touch with some of Erik’s Woods Lab compatriots. They are curing cancer, providing health services to the poor, saving endangered species and more. I wish I would have kept in better touch with Erik. He married Amy, a classmate of mine and easily the sweetest, kindest person at Sewanee. They settled in Tallahassee and had a family. Erik worked in forestry, most
recently as a Forest Ecologist with the United States Forest Service in the National Forests of Florida.

Unlike me, Erik stayed in great shape after college, always the lean and strong distance runner. He had the heart of a Viking and the soul of a brother in Christ. In October, Erik passed away, illness taking him much more quickly than doctors presumed.

My second career has allowed me to travel and perform in Florida. I helped the Friends of Ocala
National Forest celebrate their centennial in 2009. Every year, I help the Friends of Pelican
Island celebrate our nation’s first federal bird sanctuary. How I wish I would have stayed in touch and known Erik was so nearby.

Earlier this week, I visited late at night with Erik’s old college roommate here in Phoenix. The
evening was full of stories of Erik growing man eating plants in his closet and coming to the rescue of his well pickled friends. Today, I climbed Phoenix, Arizona’s Piestewa Peak, formerly known as Squaw Peak. More than one of the insanely fit runners who passed me, ascending the 2608 foot mountain, reminded me of my friend Erik. You may remember that Piestewa Peak is named in honor of Army Specialist Lori Ann Piestewa, our first female soldier to be killed in 2003 during the Iraq War. Erik and I both had the honor of running at Sewanee with Navy Lieutenant William “Tom” Costen, a Sewanee man killed in action in January of 1991, flying off the carrier the USS Ranger. All too often, the old saw is painfully true. The good die young.

When Erik passed away, his family asked that remembrances be made to one of the following organizations, all of which are integral to Erik’s life’s work: Florida Natural Areas Inventory ( ) or the Atlanta Botanical gardens carnivorous plant restoration efforts (, which benefit Florida State Parks.

God bless and keep Erik Dorr Johnson and his family. EQB and YSR!

1 comment:

RKStarr said...

Your worthy tribute to Erik nearly soothes the shock of the news it brings.

Erik was the assistant proctor of my freshman dormitory at Sewanee and when I recall that time my mind often focuses on him. In that day the absurdities we freshmen involved ourselves with left him unfazed and the example he so effortlessly set served as a beacon for me: he was exceptionally studious and genuinely kind.

My heart goes out to Amy. Your description of her is perfect. As they got to know one another our freshman year their match started to seem natural to the point of inevitability. With the benefit of a little age I fully appreciate what a rare delight that is.

I too wish I had kept in better touch. There's another lesson there, one I won't overlook.

Thank you, Joe.