June 20, 2019 finds me in Ontario, Canada, trailering my fleet of racing singles eastward along the north shores of Lake Huron. Perfect scenery, perfect weather, perfect road, perfect pancakes with locally-tapped maple syrup.
Imperfect day, though, because on this day more than most I miss my great pal, that one-of-a-kind goof butt, Mike Johnson. Today Mike would have turned 70, but “Boats”, as some called him, died fifteen years ago following his second bone-marrow transplant treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
As it is with all departed loved ones, the bleak feeling of losing him never passes, never lessens.
“Because I can and because I must” is why I take this solo row’d trip. A big part of the “must” is that this is the type of trip Mike and I often said we would take together: load the boats and oars, head down the road, and look for smooth waters. Eat good food, row good water, see the sights, have some laughs.
He should be here today with me today. He would love this.
Mike Johnson and I raced crew for the California Golden Bears in the late 1960’s. My frosh year began October 1966 and his a year later. Each of us in our younger years had played sports – and we were pretty darned good at some of them – but we were destined not to achieve our dreams of being major college material in any.
Both of us, however, came to U.C. Berkeley determined to compete intercollegiately at something. Fortunately, although neither of us knew anything about rowing, we were recruited to come to the boathouse as walk-ons – like most people were in those days, even at a rowing powerhouse like Cal.
We got hooked. We stayed. We learned a sport-for-life, made life-long friends with guys like Mike and me.
I completed my bachelor degree in June 1970 and Mike graduated the following June. His senior year at Berkeley I spent at graduate school in Arizona. His post-graduate year, 1971-72, I was crew coach at University of Oregon, and he apprenticed as an electrician near his home town in Concord, California.
Fall of 1972 I began law school at Lewis and Clark College in Portland. That year, I established L and C’s rowing program and started Station L Rowing Club. I was loving my time on the ground floor of Portland’s 1970’s rowing renaissance, learning my way around the Willamette River, meeting the old rowers who were coming out of the woodwork, and spending many hours rowing and building the rowing programs, and coaching the collegians and the masters rowers.
On top of all that I was a husband and the father of a young son, working full-time at a law office, attending class in the evenings, and studying. Plus, we had pets! By 1975 I could no longer burn the candle at those many ends!
Mike was in Albuquerque, selling vacuum cleaners. (“It’s air flow, Don, not suction.”). I called him and said, “Get your a** up here, Johnson; I need your help. I’ll get you a job and a place to live, and you can join the prestigious ranks of unpaid / underpaid rowing coaches.” He was unsure so I leaned hard on him as only a good friend can do, and next thing I knew he had given up his chance to be Hoover’s King of Sales and was sleeping on our couch.
Early the following Sunday morning, I woke up a couple of law school classmates, introduced them to Mike and said, “Here’s your new roommate.” “We weren’t looking for a roommate.” “You didn’t need to; I found one for you.” I took him to Refectory Restaurant where I had worked and in a few minutes he had a job.
Mike and his law-student housemates would become close friends. Mike would coach Lewis and Clark Crew and Station L for several years, do a three-year stint coaching University of Oregon Crew, then come back to Portland to coach some more. He became a fine coach and built a reputation as one of Portland’s premier bartenders and waiters.
He met his wife, Valorie, in Portland. I stood as his best man at their wedding as he had done for me a few years before. In time Mike and Val would move to San Francisco, and their son, Sam, was born there January 25, 1988.
After a few years, they moved back to Portland. By then, Mike was quite ill with cancer. Nonetheless, he got back into coaching, and over a span of several years, he helped rowers at most of the Portland-area clubs. Novices, Olympians, hackers and technicians were all the same to him. He gave them everything he had up until weeks before he died.
He was an inspiration as a coach, as he had been as a college rower. He was a force. He had won the Russ Nagler award as outstanding freshman and in his senior year Mike’s crew teammates voted him winner of the Dean Witter Award, Cal Crew’s highest honor, for “Loyalty, Proficiency and Spirit.”
He poured those same qualities into his family and friends as well. No man ever loved his wife and child more than Mike Johnson did, and no one ever had a better friend than I had in him.
Mike and I found common ground in our need to test ourselves, to push beyond what we had thought were our limits, to compete and to win. We had similar backgrounds, with intelligent parents who were teachers – serious people with high expectations who were good humored and confident enough to trust our offbeat leanings toward Mad Magazine and Steve Allen and Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan and the like.
We were studious guys who leavened things with acerbic but harmless (usually) wit. We shared an abiding intolerance for pretentiousness. (For example, standing in line at Starbucks: Don [loudly enough]: “Mike, just what does ‘Vente’ mean?” Mike [loudly enough]: ” ‘With sheep droppings.’ “) We were not for the faint-of-heart when we were together, and I suppose if we were still at it today, we would be hearing that something we had said or done was declared “inappropriate” by someone who feels “uncomfortable”.
We wasted little time wondering whether people liked us, instead being driven simply by what we thought was right and fair – and, yes, funny. Those sensibilities played a large part in building successful careers – mine, as a lawyer and judge, and Mike, as comedy writer and stand-up comedian. We constantly advised and encouraged one by teasing, testing, questioning, challenging and criticizing – just like we had learned to do in those eight-oared racing shells.
I considered us equal in every respect. One of my proudest moments came years ago when for the first time he called me “brother”. Having had no natural brother (or sister) of my own, in that moment I realized how lonely I had been for a sibling and just how important Mike and I were to each other.
When Mike Johnson took sick with cancer, together with the help of our families and crewmates and friends we mobilized the many who had come to love this special man. It was almost unbelievable, the amount of energy and love people extended for him and his wife and son.
We never doubted for a moment that he would beat his disease. A person this good cannot be allowed to leave, we believed.
The cancer eventually took him down after a decade of fighting.
I am not one who thinks he “is up there looking down’, etc. I have no idea what, if anything he is doing now. But for sure I am looking right at him, and smiling, and he is blurred by tears.