By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
SHENANDOAH, Iowa, March 4, 2015 — Howard Johnson, a local business leader who for decades was the personification of community spirit here in our hometown, died February 21 at the age of 82. He was a great friend of all of us in the Offenburger family — in fact we called him “the 8th Offenburger” — and I was asked to deliver a eulogy at his funeral Feb. 25 at the packed Emmanuel Lutheran Church. The following was my text.
I want to open these few minutes of reflection by asking you all something: Have any of you had more enjoyment and fun with a friend, than we’ve all had with Howard Johnson? If you have, you are indeed a fortunate person.
And of course, Howard meant even more to his family – his parents Hallie & Bettie, his wife Mary Alice, children Mark, Robyn, Jeff, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, in-laws, and others in the clan.
When Howard turned 82 this pasts December, son Jeff wrote him a letter as a birthday present. I’m sharing Jeff’s letter with you all this morning as kind of a collective statement from the Johnson family.
December 6, 2014
It’s always been a challenge figuring out what to get you for your birthday. Years ago I could always go with ping pong balls or chocolate covered cherries. It’s funny — not once can I ever remember you playing ping pong or eating candy, but you would always say it was just what you wanted.
Speaking of fishing, did we ever catch any fish?! Surely we did, but that’s not what I remember. What I remember is the snake you turned into a leather belt. There was Jimmy Lynn’s A-frame and the way he could make swearing sound so easy. There was the time you drove our car into the ditch. There was the OTHER time you drove our car into the ditch. Come to think of it, did we ever go fishing and NOT have something memorable happen? Even up in Canada, there was more foolishness than fish. Like the day we had to slice up one of your shoes to fix the boat motor. Or the night Mark, along with Todd Whitehill, thought it would be fun to play 8-ball with the locals. And let’s not forget our return to the Great North, where one member of our party was just a few ashes away from burning down the cabin, and where you and Bill Pennington took the plunge into the boat. Nice move, pulling Bill in with you.
You and I really should have become better outdoorsmen. After all, we did spend a couple of years in the legendary “Y Indian Guides”! Remember the names we chose? Bear Claw and Big Buffalo. I still feel badly for fellow member Duke Sand, whose special feathers were eaten by our dog. And for whichever Martin brother it was that threw up strawberry pop all over Junior Taylor’s porch. And let’s not forget Harvey Folden and his talented son, Bob. No one, and I mean no one, was better at tossing cards into a hat, or dropping clothes pins into a milk jug, than young Bob Folden!
As I indicated earlier, you’ve never been the easiest guy to shop for. Think about it — you owned your own clothing store. And for so many people, there wasn’t a better place in the world to hang out than Johnson Clothing. Not only did that store provide so much for our family, but it also served as the welcome center for Shenandoah. More like the welcome home center. I will always remember how Chuck Offenburger captured it when you finally decided to close the doors. Chuck wrote, Howard “no longer will have to worry about pulling away from the fun to take care of serious customers.” So true.
What I loved about Johnson Clothing were the characters. Guys like Joe Hunter and Francis Allen and Snug Amos. And most likely, it was right there in the store where I first heard some of your best stories. Like the time you easily won the Easter Egg Race. Or your BB gun adventures. And who can forget the day you and Grandpa Johnson decided to go for coffee — at the exact same time!
It has occurred to me that this letter, also known as your birthday present, could go on forever. And that’s because our family has so many great memories. Sometimes the best way to know God’s will for our lives is to look in the rear view mirror. And from that perspective, I’m sure God will someday say, “Well done, Howard Johnson.”
Have a wonderful birthday, Dad. It’s an honor to be your son.
Jeff, all of you in the family, what a fun, powerful and loving statement that just was.
Now, as for the rest of what is coming here this morning, let me open with a warning. On July 11, 1947, I was born at Hand Hospital in Shenandoah. Two days later, my mother Anna Offenburger wanted to get back to work at the Economy Products, so she checked our of the hospital with me and went home to 812 8th Avenue. There my older brothers and sisters were all waiting for us.
Brother Tom Offenburger and the neighbor kid from three doors up the street, Howard Johnson, were especially waiting for me. They tried to put a ball and a glove on my tiny hands, to get my life started right, and when that didn’t work so well, they started gently tossing me back & forth, tossing and catching – and then Howard dropped me. On my head. Many who know this story said I’ve never been right since then. But I survived, and so did those two guys, which is a wonder when you consider that Anna Offenburger was standing close by when this happened.
We have a full turn-out of the surviving Offenburger siblings here this morning – John Offenburger representing his father Bill, our brother; Beverly Watson, of Johnston; Sue Polk and her husband Bud of Omaha, Chris Werner of Cedar Rapids, and myself from Cooper in west central Iowa. We all wanted to be here, of course, to support the Johnsons as they mourn the loss of the leader of their family. Howard was so close to all us Offenburgers, that we mourn just as deeply. In fact, most of you know we’ve always called him “the 8th Offenburger.” There are other families, especially here in Shenandoah, that have considered Howard to be one of their own, too. It feels right that we are all here.
And let the Offenburger family record show that Howard’s high school classmate Beverly Offenburger Watson skipped a chemo treatment this week so she could be here today. We’ve always been a family with perhaps peculiar priorities – like when we postponed brother Tom’s funeral for two days in the summer of 1986 so we could all go to the Everly Brothers concert first. We knew that Tom would understand.
Howard Johnson, thru the years, as shown in the display of family photos and memorabilia for the visitation held for him.
As near as I can figure, the bond between the Johnsons and Offenburgers goes back into the 1930s. Think of that – 80 years or more of friendship!
I think it began when Hallie Johnson and Herman Offenburger, as young fellows, were hired by the late, great Henry Field to run businesses in his “company store” at Henry Field Seed & Nursery here in Shenandoah. That store was like a shopping center today – with all kinds of products from garden seeds, farm seeds, paint, tires, tools, clothing, food and more. Hallie had men’s clothing, down the staircase and in the basement, as I recall. Dad ran a produce company across an alley out back – “Herman’s Produce,” where farmers sold their eggs and chickens.
Eventually the Johnsons and the Offenburgers wound up neighbors on lower 8th Avenue – with only Nellie Burdick (later Burt Funkhouser and Charlie Curry) and Maggie Coons between us.
Howard, being an only child, naturally gravitated toward our house where there were always lots of other kids. We were all so into sports! And it soon became clear that we Offenburgers were better at describing and writing about sports than we were at playing them. Howard, on the other hand, was the star. When the kids divided up on teams, Howard was the first to be chosen, if indeed he wasn’t the captain. He was the perennial MVP in the “Offenburger Relays” track meet held in the back yard. He hit home run balls into Mrs. Melchert’s garden, and we were so afraid of her we wouldn’t go get the ball until it got dark. And of course, he bounced a basketball so many times on the dirt basketball court of our garage driveway, it turned hard as concrete.
In his high school years, Howard became a terrific singer and an even better basketball player. In fact, he and his classmate Don Ginger, who was an all-around athlete but especially good in football, probably were the highest-profile athletes Shenandoah High had produced in the 25 years since our Willis Glassgow went on to the University of Iowa and became an All-American football player for the Hawkeyes. I still believe that, 65 years ago this month, the Shenandoah Mustangs basketball team would have beaten the Atlantic Trojans and given our school its first ever state basketball tournament appearance, except those sneaky people in Atlantic had been admitted from a door on the other end of the gym, and they had packed the place before our fans got a chance at seats! But I’m not bitter about that. No. Howard Johnson wasn’t bitter about it, either. Nope.
Howard won a scholarship to play basketball at Iowa State, and he became a varsity starter and top player during his three years on the varsity. Truth be told, the Cyclones were not very good in those years, but in 1953, they successfully recruited the best basketball player the state had ever produced at that point – Gary Thompson, from little Roland, a three-year first-team All-Stater who led his Rockets teams into huge upsets of some of the state’s biggest high schools in the state tournaments. “The Roland Rocket,” he became known as, and still is. And that’s despite the fact that he was like the first “Mayor” in Ames after becoming a first-team All-American for Iowa State in both basketball and baseball.
Howard was a senior when Gary Thompson was a freshman, and Gary was required to play on a freshman team. So they never got to play on the same team, a regret that Howard expressed to me again in our last visit 11 days ago. He and Gary Thompson became friends for life. And in 2008, when I wrote the biography of Thompson, Howard told me a great story about how everyone in Iowa back then was in awe of Gary. Here’s how I told it in the book:
“We all knew about Gary Thompson from everything he’d done in the high school state tournaments,” Howard told me in our interview. “I was sorry I was never going to get to play on the same team with him, since freshmen weren’t eligible for varsity back then.
“But I think my mother was even sorrier about that,” Howard continued. “She adored Gary Thompson. I remember my folks coming to Ames to see me play one game, and there was a reception for all the players and their parents. We were in there, and when I saw Gary walk in with his parents, I said, ‘Mom, there’s Gary Thompson right over there.’ She let out kind of a shriek and went running right over to meet him. It was one of the most exciting moments of her life! I’ll tell you, she was much more excited about meeting Gary Thompson than she was about watching me play another basketball game.”
About the time Howard’s military service ended, and he and Mary Alice settled in Shenandoah, I was hired by Hallie Johnson as the snow scooper at the Johnson house. He told me to keep track of how many times I scooped, and then when I needed a new sweater or pants, to come down to the store – by then on main street – and he’d pay me in clothing. So after I scooped several times, I went down and had my eye on a black V-neck sweater, a really hot fashion item that year among we sixth or seventh graders. When I picked it out, Hallie said, “It’s yours – and come over here and try on a pair of these trousers. I think they’d look slick-as-a-whistle with that sweater.” I told him no way I could buy those trousers, and he said, “You already did.” When I told him I hadn’t earned that much money he said, “Well, you know, it’s going to snow some more.” Those guys turned me into a fashion leader at SJHS!
I hope the family remembers those years in Johnson Clothing – despite all their long hours and loafing customers – I hope they remember them as fondly as all the rest of us do. I mean, the store became, just as Jeff wrote, like a “Welcome Home Center” for Shenandoah! A whole lot of great stories, great stunts, and great projects began right there.
One of the red plastic Johnson’s Clothing suitbags that the store’s loyal customers carried around the world.
Howard, as we’ve all been remembering this week, could FLY! You know, maybe he really couldn’t fly, but when you watched him create an optical allusion with those floor-length mirrors at the back of the store, you’d swear he did. I know the whole generation of Offenburger grandkids and some of the great-grandchildren, believe they saw the man fly. Heck, I still half-believe I saw him fly, too.
Part of that was the optical illusion, but most of it was that Howard Johnson had become the finest storyteller Shenandoah ever produced, and he could “sell” you a story like no one else could.
I mean, even in recent weeks when it became clear Howard has probably made his last basket, he still frequently had visitors to his room at Elm Heights in tears – from laughing at one more telling of “Howard’s greatest hits,” as we should probably call them. I know that many of us will be telling them the rest of our own lives.
But Howard Johnson could also be serious, profound, even spiritual.
There came a hot day in August of 1989, when we Offenburgers came to Shenandoah to do something Shenandoah families like ours dread. Mom was gone, and we had to clean out the house, do something about decades of “stuff,” and put 812 8th Avenue on the market.
As we moved, cleaned, loaded and sweated that day, we laughed, we cried and we remembered a lot. And then in the late morning, the “8th Offenburger” Howard Johnson stopped by to say hello and see how we were doing. Here’s how I told it in a column in the Des Moines Register back then:
Our work done, I was leaning against Howard’s car and telling him of the rush of feelings we were all having.
“Yeah, this day will haunt you,” he said. “But you should be thankful for it, too.” I thought about that for a minute, agreed but then for some reason said, “Thankful for what? Remind me.”
Howard, with seriousness and eloquence I’m not used to in him, said, “Be thankful for having had a home like this, for a Mom and Dad like you had and for where you came from.”
That nearly dropped me. I blubbered, put on my sunglasses, sniffled some more and headed off to meet my brother and sisters at Hardee’s for lunch before we parted. I told them what Howard had said, and then all five of us were blubbering and reaching for sunglasses.
Oh, man, I love Shenandoah. We all do. But I don’t think any of us have loved Shenandoah as much as Howard Johnson did.
So, today we add to that list, that list of things that we all should be thankful for. We add that we are all genuinely thankful we had a man like Howard Johnson in our lives.
You can email the columnist at chuck@Offenburger.com or comment using the handy form below here.