An Old Ball Player Takes His Final Break

by Phil Johnson

The magnificent memorial service in Salem Covenant Church, New Brighton, the home church of Curtiss Johnson, reflected the wide range of his friendships and influence. The first grand notes of the organ, struck by Cindy Reents, brought Curt to mind. Bruce Johnson followed with a moving tribute to his father. Never, he said, did his dad utter the words: “What’s in it for me?” Bruce chose the metaphor of a mountain climb to picture his father’s life journey. As children, Bruce, Dewey, and Bonnie spent a lot of time in Waite Park across Ulysses Avenue. They played or skated on into the evening. When it was time to come home, Lorraine or Curt would turn on the porch light. This memory carries symbolic power for the children. Bruce has created a company that makes family videos. He named his company PorchLight Entertainment.

As we savored Bruce’s tribute, Stephen Swanson filled the sanctuary with a Swedish Medley, the first of his solos. Steve, Professor of Voice at the University of Iowa, is a great tenor who grew up in Salem Church. He said, “Curtiss Johnson let me play ball. When someone let’s you play ball, you sing at their funeral.” He referred to his junior-high and high school days when Curt would pick him up the to play basketball in the old Covenant Hi-League Church League. Steve repaid his old mentor with both his spirit and his song.

Paul Holmer, Noah A. Porter Professor, emeritus, of Yale Divinity School, paid tribute to his boyhood friend. He said that Curt helped him appreciate his roots at Thomas Edison High School. He observed that though Curt did not pursue an academic career, he silently and independently discovered the “republic of letters” which helped him in his life adventure—a life that was significant and deep. Curt’s joy and the fun he had being a Christian, said Paul, was never vanquished.

David Hawkinson, who with Susan and his violin joined the Johnson family for the final vigil, read scripture as I have never heard it read before—even by David. We were transported. Every word rang clear, loaded with meaning. The opening line: “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” (Isaiah 40:21) filled the sanctuary. We thought about Curt when David read “…they who wait for the lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles…”

In the sermon, “Both Sides of the River,” Glen Wiberg called Curtiss the Salem Historian. Glen and Curt worked together on the history of Salem Covenant. The metaphor of the river took its place in our imaginations alongside Bruce’s metaphor of the mountain. We felt peace as we saw, through Glen’s words, that Curt had safely crossed the river—the Jordan this time, rather than the Mississippi—between this life and the life to come. And, Glen assured us, the real estate on both sides belongs to God, with whom Curt had a rich, grace-filled friendship.

So, we salute Curtiss Johnson: the one who, as Wally Pratt (once one of Curt’s Hi Leaguers) observed, brought out the best in each child; the one for whom Steve Swanson sang; the one whom we remember as our friend and supporter; and the one who, praise God, was to the last moment of his life Pietisten’s roving reporter. May his memory be a rich blessing to Lorraine and the family and may he rest and play in peace!

Listen to portions of the Memorial Service: