Charles G. Johnson Jr., 63, of Baker City, died March 25, 2007, at Oregon Health & Science University Hospital in Portland.
A celebration of Charlie’s life and memorial service is scheduled at 2 p.m. Monday, April 16, at the Nazarene Church, 1250 Hughes Lane. There will be a reception afterward.
Charlie’s life began on Nov. 16, 1943, in southern New Jersey, in a place where orchards and crops grew, producing annual bounties of fruits and vegetables. The times were slow and life was simple, considering that overseas World War II raged.
He was initially raised by his mother, Elizabeth Kirby Johnson, until Charles Grier Johnson Sr. returned home from the war.
Charlie was raised at Mullica Hill, N.J. He was the oldest of three boys. Together, with his brothers, Gary and Glenn, they grew to love nature. It was the Boy Scouts that helped each of them define their love for the outdoors.
When Charlie was 16, his world shifted. He was involved in a tragic car accident, in which he lost a friend. While Charlie was hospitalized and grieving, he was given the book “Of Men and Mountains,” (written by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas). It was that book that gave Charlie direction.
He was to head West.
After graduating from Glassboro High School, Charlie decided to enroll at the University of Idaho at Moscow. Although the school was miles away from home, Charlie knew when he arrived that he had chosen the right university.
However, he did not know just how the school would eventually shape his life.
After receiving his bachelor’s degree in Forest Resource Management at the U of I in 1967, Charlie joined the Peace Corps. Again, it was another decision that altered the course of his future.
He befriended a number of Americans in the program, who would eventually grow to be lifelong friends. He also felt a great sense of accomplishment in helping the South American country develop a reforestation program to harvest pine trees.
It was in Chile where Charlie met the love of his life, Angelica Gonzalez Sotomayor. The couple wed in Chile, and soon thereafter moved back to the United States.
Anxious to continue his education, Charlie enrolled again at the U of I, where he pursued a master’s in forest ecology (graduated 1972). He later went on to pursue a Ph.D. in rangeland ecology at Oregon State University in Corvallis (graduated 1982).
After career stops with the U.S. Forest Service, in John Day and Enterprise, the Johnson family (which now included two daughters) settled in Baker City in 1979. Charlie became the U.S. Forest Service’s “first” area plant ecologist for three National Forests (the Wallowa-Whitman, Umatilla and Malheur).
It was in Baker City that Charlie put his education to work. He spent summers in the mountains and canyons identifying the trees and plants that grow here. He mapped out changes in vegetation using ecological data from some of the regions earlier scientists.
He also pioneered thousands of vegetative sites, laying the foundation for future research. The work was critical to understanding vegetation changes, and man’s impact, on the national forests.
It can be difficult to express just how tremendous Charlie’s career accomplishments were. In a word he was a “pioneer” in his field, revered for his passion, accuracy, and strong belief in his work.
Charlie authored several books ranging in subject from plant ecology to plant identification. Among his publications are two popular plant guide books, “Common Plants of the Inland Pacific Northwest” and “Alpine and Subalpine Vegetation of the Wallowa, Seven Devils and Blue Mountains,” both are frequently used by natural resource specialists, as well as the general public.
He was “the” expert in his field.
In 1995, Glassboro High School, in New Jersey, recognized they had sent forward a winner. Charlie was entered into the school’s “Hall of Distinguished Alumni.” He was greatly humbled by the gesture, and moved to tears.
In 2002, the university that gave Charlie his start also looked to him to honor. The University of Idaho awarded him with its most prestigious alumni achievement award — “The Silver and Gold Award.” The University’s College of Natural Resources also entered Charlie into its “Hall of Distinguished Alumni.”
Soon thereafter, Charlie went on to become a board member of the UI’s College of Natural Resources. He also gave lectures and taught fire ecology classes for the University after retiring in 2004 from the Forest Service.
In the fall of 2006, Charlie donated much of his life’s work (including the work of three other regional ecological pioneers) to Eastern Oregon University at La Grande. Because of his efforts, decades of ecological research will be preserved for study in a portion of the university’s library.
While his career meant a great deal to him, Charlie’s greatest work was his family. His promotion of their accomplishments and character was unending.
He stood in admiration of his wife, Angelica’s, strength; her talent as an artist; and he always credited her for being his main supporter and confidant. Together, they were inseparable, the true picture of what a marriage should be.
His oldest daughter, Audrey, was his rock. Thoughtful and serious (like his own mother), he bragged about her accomplishments as a graphic designer, and was proud of the wife and mother she’d become.
Melica, the youngest, was Charlie’s humorous side. Born with her father’s dry wit, the two playfully teased. Charlie was also Melica’s biggest fan. He watched her political reports nightly on KATU-TV (Portland).
To family and friends, Charlie was admired for his studious curiosity of the world. From the time he was a teenager he documented every day of his life in a journal, and captured an estimated 60,000 images of the things he saw throughout his life on slides.
His den was a shrine to his interests and incredible powers of organization. He collected thousands of books and postcards, mapping out a well-traveled life.
He took comfort in the thing most people loathe: organization. Everything deserved to be acknowledged, catalogued, and put in a place that gave order to his world.
Nothing was too small for observation. Everything deserved recognition. He gave equal footing to things large and small, from the tiniest wildflower to the boldest sunset.
Food was a big part of Charlie’s life. He was always seeking out the best restaurants.
As was his way with everything, no culinary detail was too small to be noted. His dining experiences and recommendations were always passed along to friends — many who remain mystified at how one man could walk away from a plate of food with so much thoughtful dissection.
All things aside, Charlie’s greatest contribution to this world was his personality and character. He acknowledged everyone who crossed his path with a warm “hello,” his infamous tilted grin, and — quite often — a witty comment to warm the room.
Charlie was not a political man. He judged a person by “who” they were, not by “what” they did. While he was always impressed by a person’s accomplishments, he knew that was not the measure of a person. His wide collection of loyal friends is evidence of how he placed character above all else.
He loved Baker City. He thought it was the greatest place a person could live. And while he enjoyed traveling, he always loved his homecomings. The familiar warmth of “his” small town where so many people appreciated him brought him great joy and peace.
When Charlie wasn’t making the rounds in downtown Baker City, he spent time at the Baker Golf Course. He was an avid golfer, who cherished the relationships he’d built on the greens.
Charlie fought leukemia for two months. In the days preceding his death, Charlie’s bravery and humility were exposed. He never gave up the fight to overcome his illness. In fact, he beat back the disease with humor, delivering witty remarks until the end.
And of course, Charlie never stopped recording and documenting his world. He took notes detailing the course of his illness until his final hours.
Survivors include his wife, Angelica G. Johnson of Baker City; daughters, Audrey Crespo of Portland and Melica Johnson of Salem; his father, Charles Grier Johnson Sr. of Woodstown, N.J.; his brother, Glenn Johnson, and sister-in-law Yvonne Johnson of Mantua, N.J.; his brother, Gary Johnson, and sister-in-law, Janie Johnson of Woodstown; son-in-law, Santiago Crespo of Portland; granddaughter, Isabel Crespo of Portland; grandson, Matias Crespo of Portland; soon-to-be son-in-law, Jason Heuser of Salem; and his favorite four-legged friend, his dog, Pepito.
He was preceded in death by his mother, Elizabeth Kirby Johnson.
Memorial contributions may be made to the University of Idaho Foundation, Charles G. Johnson Jr. Memorial Fund, C/O Gift Administration Office, PO Box 443147, Moscow, ID. 83844-3147
Gray’s West & Co. is in charge of arrangements.
Used with permission from: Baker City Herald, Baker City, Oregon, April 6, 2007
Transcribed by: Belva Ticknor