The University of New Mexico Alumni Chapel was filled to capacity for the celebration of the life of Doug Johnson. As his obituary said, “Doug Johnson was a gift to his family and all who knew him.” The tremendous attendance attested to his beneficial influence on so many people.
In his opening remarks, Father Brian Taylor with St. Michael’s and All Angels Church told how he came to know Doug, who had fought cancer for several years. His battle had reached the point where medical science had nothing further to offer. Doug decided he needed to speak with a wise man, so his wife Ruth and friends sought one out. He joked that the message became garbled and they found a wise guy.
Father Brian and Doug dove into the deep end of philosophical conversation right off the bat, and their first two hours together flew by. There is a natural human anxiety about facing death, and Doug was brave to look it squarely in the face and talk about it. He was spiritual but not religious, so they spoke about where to find meaning and solace.
They spoke of the energy of life and love, goodness, creativity and relationships. Does this energy transcend the individual? Simply asking questions allowed Doug to relax into the reality of his situation. He approached death with openness and trust.
Father Brian was grateful to be able to walk with him during that time. He invited everyone to take a moment of silence to say yes to the energy field of goodness and love that Doug lived in.
The entire celebration of Doug Johnson’s life was beautifully put together, from the sunflowers that he loved gracing the front of the chapel to the meaningful songs that were sung and the live music played on piano and guitar. The speakers had all prepared their remarks in advance. They were enlightening and uplifting, prompting laughter and tears as everyone remembered a remarkable man.
Kay Bratton worked with Doug, starting in the “special education tsunami of the 70s.” She said, “We were young and idealistic, starting programs from the ground up. We picked up a battering ram against the status quo and opened the doors of education to students with disabilities. Doug went to his grave knowing he made a difference. We were dedicated and had a lot of fun. It’s so clear now, those were the halcyon days.”
“His eloquence, music, grace, bottomless love, and his laugh – oh, how he laughed! If only I could have bottled it. It rolled up from the diaphragm and into sustained chuckles.”
And his keen sense of humor made everyone laugh. Kay related a story about attending an education conference in Chicago with Doug. During the event, a man plunged to his death at the conference hotel. Did he fall? Was he pushed? Police were swarming all around the hotel. Doug surveyed the scene and quipped, “Gee, I didn’t think the conference was that bad.”
All the speakers praised the amazing marriage that Doug and Ruth shared. Their relationship was a work of art. After 25 years of marriage, he answered her phone calls with “Hi, gorgeous.” Their love for each other brought much warmth and joy to those who knew them. While Doug always glowed, he lit up when Ruth was around.
Veronica Garcia, former New Mexico Secretary of Education, first worked with Doug in the early 70s. She said he was a fearless and exemplary leader, quirky with a megawatt smile. He felt that rules and regulations were “guidelines” and it was best to do the right thing. He was of the “act now, seek permission later” school of thought.
“He never took a single day for granted, and he lived life with gusto,” she said. The last time she saw him, he looked so peaceful and smiling as he savored memories of Ruth’s cooking and images of fields of sunflowers. “He faced his death with courage, grace, and exemplifying life with courtesy of the heart.”
John Franks spoke about Doug as his foster father. “He cared when no one else seemed to. He impacted hundreds of lives, and he saved, supported, put up with, and genuinely cared about me.”
“I literally owe this man my life. How can I repay the kindness this man has shown me? I was a lost soul and a lost cause. At the time, I didn’t expect to live to 21. I’m now rounding the horn to 47. He saw more in me than anyone else, coaxed it out and showed me how to live a life of decency. To say he was the greatest man on the planet is not an understatement.”
Len Ridley shared stories about working with Doug to help special education students. He shared several stories that showed how devoted Doug was to honoring and respecting the young men and women that he worked with. Even as the cancer advanced, he pushed himself to help students when he was hurting and weak.
Debbie Johnson, Doug’s sister-in-law, was married to his brother Rick. Together they ran Rick Johnson & Company advertising agency. She said “Doug stood beside me and held my hand on the best day of my life in 1982 when I married Rick. And he stood by me and held my hand on the worst day of my life, March 15, 2010, the day Rick died.”
She said, “Being around Doug was like a dose of vitamin C – it was healing, and your teeth were probably whiter.” She praised his determination in the face of cancer, the way he held onto friends and colleagues through the years, his inspirational attitude, his intellect and his fabulous laugh. She used “C” words that described Doug: candor (he told you the truth, whether you wanted it or not); conscious; crossword puzzles (he and Ruth were masters of the crossword universe); charisma; and courageous.
She added, “Both Doug and Rick were able to contemplate their lives, look back, and feel our lives were good. Not everyone gets to do that.”
A photo remembrance set to music played by Doug on piano was projected on a screen. Images of travel to far away places, lots of friends and family, and many smiles floated through the presentation.
Ruth’s words of gratitude for the staff at the UNM Cancer Center were read by her longtime friend Lee Davis. The message ended with “As devastating as this disease can be, this world is still a kind and beautiful place.”
Lee added that the quality of Ruth and Doug’s love for one another could be summed up in the greeting Namasté. “At it’s deepest level, it means residing in the place inside where everything exists, we are one. This essence-to-essence meeting was Ruth and Doug’s love. It touches our souls. May we all learn how to love each other this way.”
The 90-minute service ended with a beautiful story about how Ruth and Doug loved France and came upon the opportunity to hear the Pia Jesu from Fauré’s Requiem. They sat right in the front row of a small medieval church to hear this favorite piece of music. Doug was transported by the performance, and at the end, a trio from the choir came to them and said, “It’s every performer’s dream to have someone in the audience like you.”
May Doug Johnson rest in peace.