Jim Johnson was the kind of guy who was equally welcome at the Sanchez Ice House, the Bexar County Commissioners Court, and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Posts 9186 and 8111. He served as Grand Marshal of the King William Parade in the late ‘90s and as a board member of the San Antonio River Authority (SARA).
Johnson died Tuesday, at age 85, after months of weakening health.
“Time caught up with him and his body gave up the ghost,” said his son, Jim Johnson, Jr., also a resident of King William.
The late physical decline of a fellow who “followed his serve to the net into his ’70s,” as described by tennis foe and personal friend Rick Casey, seems extraordinary to friends who knew of the conditions he survived in Vietnam, including battle wounds and non-potable water. In 1965, during his first of two combat tours, he was shot and seriously injured in a battle while serving as advisor to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. He refused evacuation until he had concluded his mission. For this bravery he was awarded the Silver Star.
After returning home and serving as protocol officer for the 6th Army at the Presidio in San Francisco, Calif., Johnson arranged a tour of Air Force One for his son when another Johnson was president.
Johnson returned twice more to Vietnam for temporary and regular terms of duty, fortunately less eventful than the first. He retired from the U.S. Army as an instructor at the Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kan. in 1975.
“He was most proud of serving in the infantry in battle, and being awarded the Combat Infantryman’s Badge,” Jim Jr. said. The award honors meritorious service to an organization his dad loved.
A native of Fort Brown, Texas, now Brownsville, Johnson moved to San Antonio in 1990 with his wife, author Paulette Jiles, whom he had met at a horse fair in Missouri. At the time, he raised and sold Brangus cattle on a ranch he owned in southwest Missouri. Even in that community he made a name for himself, Jim, Jr. said, joining the country club and attending parties with the likes of Lee Greenwood as entertainment.
Soon after buying an 1880s home in the King William Historic District, which he renovated over time, Johnson became part of the neighborhood’s longstanding resistance to encroachment of everything from businesses to tour buses. His first opponent was his next door neighbor, the San Antonio Children’s Shelter, which planned to expand its campus.
“He was very proud that five people took on a large organization and won,” said neighborhood friend and aide-de-camp Rita Crosby.
“He was a leader on the battlefield and in the neighborhood, with great understanding and compassion and wisdom,” she added. “I know he got angry but he never let it take control of him. We had tremendous respect for him.”
After the success of the Children’s Shelter effort, Johnson was elected president of the King William Association. During his time there he continued working to maintain King William’s historic nature. The next challenge was stopping Pioneer Flour Mills from carrying out expansion plans, which the neighborhood was able to prevent.
The playing field grew larger when Johnson ran for and won a term representing District 1 on the board of the San Antonio River Authority, and served from 2001 through 2007.
He and SARA General Manager Suzanne Scott, then director of governmental affairs, worked closely to seek funding for the Mission Reach project. Congressional earmarks had become politically poisonous after the ‘Bridge to Nowhere’ fiasco in Alaska.
“Jim was instrumental in seeing that the project stayed in the forefront of Congress,” Scott said. “He went to D.C. a couple of times to make sure the Army Corps of Engineers knew the project was teed up and shovel ready.
“After he left the board (in 2007), we got the money through the stimulus package,” she added. “It was his early work that kept the project in the forefront.”
When his term ended, Johnson continued working with Mayor Lila Cockrell and the late Milton Guess to help pass a local visitors tax, paid by hotel guests, to complete the Mission Reach. It passed in 2008, enabling the Mission Reach, AT&T Center, and other projects to completion.
Within the Mission Reach was a less known pilot program for ecosystem restoration, from Guenther Street to Eagleland, as the project is called, which many now enjoy.
“It was very complicated with involvement by the federal government, the (Texas Department of Transportation), the City and County,” Scott said. “Jim was involved in keeping the funding going, behind the scenes.
“Often it takes a lot of people to make things happen, including the community. Jim was a good networker at the grassroots level.”
Johnson’s bright blue eyes, easy laugh and ability to make you feel you were the smartest, most important person in the room certainly smoothed his grassroots advocacy. But under the oak trees at La Tuna or on the tennis courts at the former Plaza San Antonio Hotel, his friends didn’t hear any self-promotion unless they asked him about his activities and past.
“Jim was a total class act,” said former County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson, a friend and cohort. “There was a kind of loftiness he reflected.”
Part of the class involved befriending people with good hearts and well-told stories. Also, he read military and Texas history, smoked fine cigars on his front porch, loved fast sleek convertibles, threw backyard “Burn Your Socks” springtime parties, played spectacular tennis, adored Jimmie Rodgers songs and sweet-talked the ladies.
In 2003, while he and his wife were divorcing, a group of women showed up to a spontaneous party one evening. His house was always unlocked and anyone was liable to walk in with a six-pack, after which the kitchen would fill with friends and libations.
On that night, Jim gravitated to one guest in particular.
“He was charming me,” said Loraine “Lorena” Johnson. Indeed, they married and took good care of each other until Tuesday morning.
In addition to Lorena and Jim Jr., Johnson is survived by daughters Robin Aredondo and Paige Johnson, brother Walter Johnson of Corpus Christi, six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. And a tankload of friends.
Friends are invited to a wake in his backyard at 4 p.m. on Sunday. The burial will be at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery on Monday at 9:45 a.m.
Top image: Jim Johnson in his car. Photo by Nancy Cook-Monroe.