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Cokato loses a pillar of the community
JUNE 25, 2012
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Russ Johnson will be remembered and missed by many

By Kristen Miller
News Editor

COKATO, MN – Whether it be as business owner, community member, or school board chair, Russ Johnson will be remembered by many as having a heart for others and a willingness to lend a hand.

For 40 years, Johnson owned and operated his own electric business, before selling it to his longtime employee, Mike Brandel in 2010.

“There wouldn’t be a Brandel Electric if it wasn’t for Russ,” Brandel said. “He was there every step of the way . . . helping wherever he could to make sure the business was successful.”

Brandel was undoubtably saddened when he found out his former boss passed away June 19.

“The community has lost a great man,” he said.

Every time there was a cause, Johnson was there to lend a hand.

“He always wanted to make sure the community was first,” Brandel said. When it came time for the Cokato Corn Carnival, for example, Johnson was there to make sure it went off without a hitch, as far as the electric service, he added.

While working together, Brandel also remembers Johnson donating electrical service for a Habitat for Humanity house in Cokato. Johnson was also instrumental in the development of Unity Park following the 1992 tornado, and the veterans memorial at Peterson Park.

As a Rotarian of 39 years, Johnson had a heart for service.

“Russ was a classic example of what Rotary stands for and that is, putting service above self,” said fellow Rotarian Bruce Bohnsack, who joined Rotary not long after Russ.

He never missed an opportunity to help the club with fundraising and service projects, Bohnsack added.

In addition, Bohnsack will miss Russ’ creativity, wit, and sense of humor.

“He was a visionary,” Bohnsack said of Russ. “He would look for things to make the area a better place to live.”

Johnson’s footprints have also been left within the school district, having served 26 years as a school board member, 17 of which were as chair.

“What impressed me most about Russ was his people skills,” said Ed Otto, who was superintendent during Johnson’s time on the board.

“He had a lot of wisdom of how to treat people fairly,” Otto commented, adding that the staff really respected Johnson.

He was also progressive when it came to enhancing the learning environment for the students, understanding the importance of education.

It was Johnson who saw the need to reduce class sizes in the primary grades, k-3, from 25-30 students, down to 20 or less. “We were one of the first districts to do this,” Otto said.

Johnson was also instrumental in the creation of the character-building pillars – respect, responsibility, resiliency, integrity, compassion, and understanding diversity – characteristics many would say Johnson possessed, himself.

Otto recalls how Johnson didn’t like split votes on the board. He would debate the issue at hand until the board came to a consensus that was best for the district.

Based on the character pillars, the board gave an award each month to a student who exemplified those characteristics.

To honor Johnson when he left the board, the board named the award the Russell A. Johnson Courtesy and Respect Award, which continues to this day.

As a lifelong member of North Crow River Lutheran Church, Johnson was also a leader within his church.

Johnson served as president on the council for a number of years, according to Pastor Mike Nelson.

What Nelson appreciated most about Johnson on the council was his ability to facilitate a fruitful discussion and be a mediator when there were disagreements.

“Everyone respected him,” Nelson said, adding that he personally valued Russ as a friend.

Retired pastor, Dan Swanson, as also dear friends with Russ, and was often the butt of his Baptist preacher jokes. Russ always made sure Swanson was not offended, however. Swanson would tell him, “Heavens no Russ. I was the one laughing the loudest.”

“He was blessed to be able to tell stories,” Swanson said of his longtime friend. “He just had a great sense of humor.”

Above all of this, what was most important to Johnson was his family.

He was often quoted as saying, “One of the most important gifts a father can give their children, is to love their mother and show it.”

A service for Johnson took place Saturday at First Baptist Church.

See inside for Johnson’s full obituary.

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