There is a solemn prospect that comes after a few years in the press world.
Of course, we write about the bad and the good. We cover the homecoming parades and county fair. We also write about murders and destructive fires. We write about the abuse case, but in the same edition we will also turn around and tell you when the Christmas parade is going to start. It’s quite a hilly road at times, and it’s not always easy to get around.
But eventually, you start to see some of those valleys and ridges looming on the horizon. This does not necessarily make writing easier. I wish that were the case, but it’s not always the case.
This week I received an email in my inbox. An obituary. Pretty typical stuff, especially after a weekend. But I knew my plans for the morning would change a little when I read the beginning of the text.
“Paul Charles Johnson” he says.
I took a second to make sure I hadn’t misread or misunderstood. I did not have. I exhaled, then looked for a folder buried somewhere in my notebook.
Found — luckily I’m pretty organized that way.
“Paul Johnson Retrospective” dated January 17, 2019.
It was the day Paul came to our office for an interview. I had been trying to come up with a good topic for some special editions we had at the time, and I remembered Paul saying something along the lines of he was probably the only local elected official who knew what the lake looked like Okoboji however several feet under water. So I asked him to tell me about some of his experiences.
And I got way more than I bargained for when I sat down with him at our conference table that day – it was well worth it.
It all started with him telling me a bit about the pen I used to take notes and all the other innovations he had helped his former employers to patent – figuring he probably never got around $10 per patent. But then we went back to his university studies and the break he had to take to support his family. We talked about his work in the steel industry, when he had to take pictures in extreme heat and flee the area before his hair started to burn.
There was his work with Von Braun and the artificial skin he made, which left a fingerprint so perfect it had to be registered with the FBI.
We got through his early days at Berkley after who knows how long, and finally got to the scuba diving part of his life story. And while explaining the competition with Dupont’s fluorescent fishing line and the legal battle over it, he tells me about the time he avoided a shark attack by diving with Jacques Cousteau’s son – they needed a expert to help them with the case, and the young Cousteau was visiting Okoboji, he said.
I didn’t really have any reason to doubt Paul at the time, but I thought maybe I misunderstood him. So I followed and searched the newspaper archives – of course, Jean-Michel Cousteau was a guest speaker at Iowa Lakes Community College Chautauqua in May 1976, and it took place at the Methodist Campground near West Lake Okoboji (Au in case you’re wondering, he talked about how agricultural chemicals can affect the ocean and how these pollutants could return to land as rain).
And the stories went on and on. A punctured knee while diving near Antigua, which developed complications and could have cost him his leg. Then on how the current county courthouse came to be and after that a discussion of the unfinished community projects he hoped to complete.
In the end, I used what he said about the courthouse to do an article in our Progress 2019 edition, and saved the rest for my records – I saw a valley in the horizon.
I expected it to be much further than it was. I pulled out my notes from that day, skimmed through them briefly, then headed to the Dickinson County Supervisors meeting that morning – the same room where I first met Paul, the same room where he once passed me a slip of paper asking what I expected in the community…with a scribbled drawing of a crystal ball.
I did not expect to write the article on Paul’s death when the time came. I had assumed that my notes would only be useful to my editor, who I assumed would take on this task. It’s a solemn thing to realize how much other people’s stories fall on those who come after them – and perhaps even more so to realize that the one who comes after them is actually you.
I’m glad I had a chance to hear Paul’s stories that day, but I’m happier that his words can now be passed on to the community he served so they know a little more on him.