Monday, January 4, 2010

Bigger than life

Walter Johnson was one of those guys for which life was not a spectator sport. He never met a stranger. He never let his 78 years of age get in the way of what he wanted to do.

He was 6-feet-5 and was in a sense bigger than life. He grew up in Wellington, played football and basketball at Tarleton State, and then served in the U.S. Navy aboard the USS Everglades from 1950 to 1954. He was seldom seen without a cap that proclaimed this.

He worked as a cowboy, cattle feeder and rancher in and around Amarillo. He may have retired many years ago, but not from life. He loved people, and substitute taught at Tascosa for many years.

He loved to snow ski, scuba dive, ride motorcycles, white water rafting -- you name it. In his 70s, he was one of the country's top snow skiiers for his age group.

The only thing he loved more than those pursuits was people. His family foremost, and then followed by anyone whose path he crossed. He always kept his trusty harmonica in his pocket, all the easier to pull it out and play a tune for a young boy or girl.

I can't remember the first time I met Walter. It's just seemed like I've always known him. I've run into him at ballgames, and we see him almost every Saturday with wife Bette at The Bagel Place.

A long time ago, he invited me to be his guest at a Rotary Club. I got there late and couldn't sit next to him. When it was time for the guests to be introduced, Walter stood to introduce me and I stood up clear across the room.

"Looks like he knows you pretty well," cracked the president. We all laughed because the one of the things Walter liked more than a good laugh was two of them.

His death last week of a heart attack was a sad end to the new year. His funeral is this morning at Polk Street Methodist Church. He crammed 120 years into those 78. His was a remarkable life. The many who know him could vouch for that.

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