Dave Johnson: On friendship, courage, and an example set

Dave Johnson, left, and his wife Tami got engaged after he proposed to her on the air while at WHMI. They were together until his death on April 21 after Dave battled pancreatic cancer for two years.
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I met Dave Johnson soon after I started at the Daily Press & Argus in 2000.

I guess we eyed each other warily in the beginning, him being a Radio Guy and my being a Print Reporter, each thinking they were a little superior to the other.

We got to know each other the next year, in the old auxiliary press box at Wes Reader Field in Pinckney.

Dave and Bill Simmons were broadcasting from there for WHMI, and, as the regular press box was full, we were sent to the other building across the way.

It was behind the visitor’s bench next to a swamp, and the building retained that swamp odor.

So I’m sitting next to the WHMI crew, and we had chatted a little during breaks, friendly banter and such, and toward the end of the game, they started talking about Dave’s Saturday Sports Scoreboard on WHMI.

Dave promoted it, saying, “We’ll have all the scores in the morning, so you don’t have to wait until Sunday for the newspaper version of the story.”

And they chuckled. I looked at them and jotted a note.

Let’s just say it contained one word, rhyming with “poles.”

Both looked at it, and their eyebrows raised.

After the game, I said, “Well, we’re even.” And they laughed, and I laughed, and it was the start, as it turned out, of a beautiful friendship.

It ended, at least on this Earth, on Friday when Dave died at age 48 after a two-year battle with pancreatic cancer.

And now, some tales

Like all media people, we chronicle relationships with stories, anecdotes about one-upping each other, like the one above, or of stuff we thought was crazy at the time but worked out just fine.

In 2003, my friend Todd Van Sickle, who was shooting photos for me that night, and I went to a  girls basketball tournament game where we met Dave.

He had met a woman, and he told us he was going to propose. On the air.

Todd and I looked at each other. “Um, are you sure you want to do that?” I asked.

Not the proposal. The on-the-air part.

I think we had both seen a video of a guy who sprung a proposal on his girlfriend at center court of an NBA game. Her eyes flew wide in horror and she ran off the court like she had been scalded, leaving the poor guy on his knee with a ring and an arena of people who were thankful not to be him.

We didn’t have any qualms about his girlfriend. We weren’t thinking about her. We just didn’t want Dave to be that guy.

We asked him if he was sure.

“Well, some people have told me I was crazy,” he said. “But I’m going to do it.”

He did, and she said yes.

He and Tami were married for nearly a dozen years, and we were never so glad as to be wrong, and we never questioned Dave’s determination or judgement again.

A new start

A few years later, Dave and I were at a golf tournament, waiting for the golfers to come in for interviews. He was excited about the little boy who had come into his and Tami’s lives. At this point, he was starting to look around for another career after radio. He had a wife and a child and a house, and it was time to move on.

Radio is like baseball, in that a lot of people want to do it, but very few make a career out of it, and many fewer in sports.

So he became a nurse’s aide, working at Providence Hospital in Novi.

We would talk every now and then. Generally, when he called, it was out of the blue and we’d talk for a few minutes before I had to get back to work.

We also talked about our radio careers and some of the bosses we worked for. We talked like friends do, with warmth and a lot of good-natured insults. Dave was a fan of the Detroit teams, especially the Tigers and Lions, and of Michigan State, where he went to school.

In all of this, I came to know him as a man of deep inner strength.

Tami developed cancer of the tongue, and in all the time I talked with him during this period, he never wavered. This will pass. Have confidence. Believe we can beat this. That was his inner message. Never a why-me or why-us. Always sunny and looking forward.

 

It was the same message when it became Dave’s turn.

The phone call

In mid-June 2015, I got a call on the Sunday afternoon after Hartland won the state baseball title.

It was one of those calls you always remember. I hadn’t heard from Dave in a while, and I was glad to hear from him.

“I’ve got some news,” he said. “I have pancreatic cancer.”

Oh. I knew this was not good. But his tone of voice was the same, upbeat and looking forward, to the point where I started to wonder a little bit.

“What stage?” I asked. “Four,” he said.

“Out of how many? Eight?” I asked, partly because I was a little stunned by the news, and partly because he didn’t sound any different.

He laughed. “No,” he said. “Four.”

The cancer first announced itself, as cancer often does, by a roundabout route starting in March 2015.

“I had been getting ready for work, tying my shoes and I got the worst back spasms in the world,” he told me in March 2016. “It was on both sides of my back. It tightened up. As a nurse aide, you’re lifting people, you’re pulling people, you’re cleaning people up. You’re helping them move. I thought it was a back problem from work.

“I’d never had anything like that before,” he said. “April comes around, and all of a sudden I’m not hungry any more. I felt like I was stuffed all of the time, and I hadn’t hardly eaten anything. It was the first week of May, it was my son’s first communion, and we had people coming over and I’m just not hungry.”

During this time, Dave had a blood test that indicated liver enzymes in his blood were four times as high as they should be. Another blood test confirmed it, and a CT scan found lesions in his pancreas, spine and liver.

The lesions in his back were causing the spasms. Dave was still working at the time, but after another spasm occurred while he was trying to help a patient out of his bed, he had to quit work. The aide had become a patient.

Dave’s brother, Leonard, is a department head at St. John’s Hospital in Detroit. A friend of his, an oncologist, looked at more blood work and determined it was cancer.

“It was one of the few times I ever saw my brother cry,” Dave said. “He’s a doctor, he’s seen a lot of stuff, but it’s not your family.”

Dave and his family teamed up to help fight the cancer. Brothers and sisters helped take care of Michael while Dave and Tami made the two-hour drive in rush hour, both ways, from his Linden home to St. John’s.

He talked with me about the survival rate for pancreatic cancer patients and how he was working to help raise money to fight the disease.

“You do this fundraising stuff and you find out more information (about pancreatic cancer),” he said. “Sometimes too much information is a bad thing.”

He laughed as he said it.

But for some people, information is power, and Dave knew what he was in for and what was at stake.

The treatments worked for a while. He lost some weight and what was left of his hair. His son remarked that he liked the new look, so Dave shaved his head when his hair started to come back.

Another press box story

His sense of humor never left him. Toward the end of my tenure at the paper, Bill and I invited Dave to sit with us in the press box at a Brighton-Howell football game.

Before the game, coaches and others came by to shake Dave’s hand and say hello. With his bald head, and an apparent weight loss, he looked different.

Back then, the radio station had guys who called in updates, and one of those guys was in the box. We were sitting there and one of them stopped by to say hello to Bill and I, and shook Dave’s hand, but with no recognition.

Bill mentioned that Dave was there, and this guy, whose name I don’t recall, went off, telling us he didn’t like Dave, Dave was a jerk, he never wanted to see him again.

Then he left. I looked at Dave, and his eyes were merry.

“He had no idea you were sitting right there,” I said. Dave laughed. Then we started talking about how Dave had one less Christmas card to send and we laughed some more.

Click here to listen to the game. Dave’s quarter begins at the 43-minute mark.

We had cleared the visit with Tami, to make sure Dave was up to, among other things, the walk from the parking lot and the climb up the stairs, which he passed.

In the second quarter, I handed over my headset during the broadcast, and told Dave we’d like him to do the second quarter. Which he did, and it sounded like he’d been off since the previous Friday, instead of 10 years.

He and Bill meshed like always.

“This has been a lot of fun,” he said when the quarter ended. “It brings back some memories.”

Dave Johnson in September 2016. (Photo by Tim Robinson)

Later that year, when my niece announced she was getting married on a Friday night in September, it wasn’t really a decision. Dave came by the house, reacquainted himself with the equipment he had sold me five years before. and did the Hartland-Howell game.

He started with a joke.

“My name is Dave Johnson,” he said. “I am sitting in tonight for Tim Robinson. Tim is actually at a Kardashian wedding. …”

Click here for that archived broadcast!

Dave loved to laugh, and Bill used to kid him unmercifully during their broadcasts, so much so that when I would sit next to them, I would start to write jokes for him to throw back at Bill.

He never used them.

“They’re funny,” he said, “but I couldn’t read them without laughing and that would sound bad on the air.”

It was the first time I’d been accused of writing something so funny you couldn’t read it, and told him so, and we laughed again.

The last time

In the meantime, I have taken a part-time position at WHMI as its sports director, and I was there on a Monday when one of my co-workers came in to talk to another co-worker about Dave, who was back at St. John’s.

I called Bill, and we drove to the hospital on a sunny Tuesday afternoon.

In the elevator, a woman asked us to hold the door, and she rode with us to Dave’s floor. She and Bill got to talking, and he went to follow her and I said, “Bill, this way,” and told him the room number.

She stopped and looked at us.

We made our way to the room and the woman appeared a few minutes later.

“You’ve come to see Dave!” she said. Turns out her son was the boyfriend of Dave’s niece, and the young man was on the same floor getting treated.

Dave’s brother, the doctor, talked to us while we waited for Dave to emerge from the bathroom. Dave had jaundice because the chemo he was undergoing was doing a number on his liver.

We stood and talked to another brother and a sister. Dave came out and smiled. “Hey, guys,” he said.

His voice was quieter, somewhat breathy, and he was fatigued. I talked with him while Bill and Dave’s brothers chatted away.

After about 20 minutes, I asked him if he needed to sleep.

“Soon,” he said. So I switched places with Bill and they talked awhile.

All the time, Dave’s siblings, Bill and I were talking about our backgrounds and about sports. I looked over and Dave had fallen asleep. The nurse’s aide came in and talked of his love for the Minnesota Vikings and the play that became known as the first Hail Mary pass, which lifted the Dallas Cowboys past his Vikings in 1975. He was still upset about the play.

It was the kind of conversation Dave would have loved, I thought later.

We were there for about an hour, by which time Dave had awakened and walked to the bathroom again. He smiled when his brother joked about wishing he had such a spacious facility in his home.

Dave came out and he walked us to the elevator. His brother Larry asked us to pose for a picture, which Dave was amenable to, and we did.

The author, Dave Johnson and Bill Simmons pose for a photo on April 11 at St. John’s Hospital in Detroit. (Photo courtesy of Larry Johnson)

At one point when I was talking with him, I asked, “How much longer will you be here?” He replied, “I hope to go home next week.”

Sometimes, life is more metaphorical than we wish it was.

A final word

On our way home, I got a text, with the photo, from Dave’s brother Larry.

“Thank you both for stopping by,” he wrote. “You cheered Dave up a bit. He/we need that right now. Larry Johnson.”

I knew what he meant. In 1995, we had a similar vigil for my sister, who was seriously injured by a bomb sent to her office by her then-estranged husband. She survived, but spent a month in the hospital, and we took turns being with her and/or my parents, and I know the feeling of helplessness, but also the closeness that was achieved.

Dave died on Friday night, surrounded by his family. On Saturday night, I spent about 15 minutes trying to make a recording of his last broadcast through a series of wires that ultimately failed.

Then I looked at an icon on the website the game was saved to, clicked it, and downloaded the file in about four minutes. It’s the kind of thing Dave would have gently mocked, with big laughter and an I’ve-been-there-brother shake of the head.

When it comes to friends we’ve lost, I try to think of how fortunate we are to have had someone like Dave, who was upbeat without being a Pollyanna, who worked hard to create a family life and savored every minute of it, a man who had faith in what he was doing even when his friends were maybe a little skeptical, but relieved when it worked out.

And so, that’s how I feel, fortunate to have known Dave for the better part of 17 years and relieved that his trials are over. He fought an implacable foe with grace, courage and dignity, showing us the way forward at the same time he was leaving us.

 

 

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