Ralph I. Johnson died Jan. 24, 2021, in St. Louis, Mo., at age 94.
Ralph was in hospice care in St. Louis, where his wife, Marilyn, and son Mark live. Children Perry, Jill and Gail visited electronically during the pandemic. He died naturally after a gentle four-year decline with dementia.
Ralph was born in Chicago on Jan. 2, 1927, to Ralph Johnson and Anna B Von Plees. He was raised by an aunt, Florence Johnson, and his paternal grandmother, Hulda E. Johnson.
As a young man, Ralph worked as a theater usher, magazine and newspaper seller, elevator operator, soda jerk, busboy, server and shoe salesman. After becoming a teacher he worked a few summers for assembly companies, but primarily he taught summer school.
He served in World War II as a member of the U.S. Army. At the end of the war, he served as a guard at Tokyo’s Sugamo Prison, which the Allied Forces used to house suspected war criminals awaiting trial.
After graduating from the University of Illinois, he earned a master’s degree at Kansas State University and a doctorate at the University of Denver. He earned his advanced degrees while teaching high school and raising his family.
He met his future wife, Marilyn Ann Cowell, in a French class at the University of Illinois. They married on Sept. 15, 1951 in Manhattan, Kan. They celebrated their 69th anniversary last year.
Ralph taught English at East Denver High School from 1954 to 1970. His students included college-bound Advanced Placement students. He often served as faculty sponsor of the school newspaper, The Spotlight, and the school yearbook, The Angelus. He was admired for his habit of addressing all students as Mr. or Ms. rather than by their first names.
Ralph taught English at Western State College (now Western Colorado University) in Gunnison, Colo., from 1970 to 1997. Class subjects ranged widely from communications to literary criticism. He enjoyed friendships with many colleagues in the Modern Languages Department, especially Sandy Patterson Randall, and in other departments.
He loved coaching dramas and musicals at both the high school and the college as well as at Webster Players, a community theater group in Gunnison.
Ralph enjoyed staying active. A notable outdoor project included a swing and chin-up set he built for his children. He and a friend wore T-shirts emblazoned “Young and Dumb Construction Co.” as they worked on their cars and homes. He walked to the college, around town, and on a treadmill.
He found joy in camping and fishing. Loading all their gear into a long Chevy wagon, he and Marilyn took their four kids on weeklong Colorado campground adventures. Picture him at Maroon Bells in his waders, pith helmet, and holding up a string of rainbow trout that would soon become campsite meals. In later years, he enjoyed ice fishing Blue Mesa Reservoir, summer fishing Lake Irwin, and angling with his grandchildren at Gunnison’s Jorgensen Park pond.
All of Ralph’s immediate family members have been teachers. He was a kind and coaching spirit who instilled love of reading, learning, questioning, humor and the outdoors. We were always thankful for his wisdom, general advice and English corrections. We sense that hundreds of his students would agree.
We depended on his quick wit and good humor since we probably would not have passed his English or linguistics exams — and didn’t understand his doctoral thesis, “The Criticism of F.R. Leavis,” or the depth of his Faulkner or Woolf reading. He was also well-read in physics and medicine.
His travels included many Modern Language Association conventions, including many that he attended with Marilyn and some where his children met up with them. He made 19 trips to the Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference in Oxford, Miss. After retiring at age 70, he visited England, Europe, Scandinavia and New Zealand with Marilyn.
Ralph was an avid reader whose book collection occupied 21 bookcases throughout the house. Many of his books had notes in the margins. His reading chair was always surrounded by piles of books, reference materials, maps, periodicals, crosswords, notepads and pencils. He wrote in pencil on yellow legal pads, so his children would see their mom clicking away at her typewriter to reproduce his exams and theses. He donated most of his books to the university.
His favorite places included zoos with primate houses, stock shows, botanical gardens, music and play performances, art museums, college libraries and cafeterias, and, of course, bookstores, where we’d drop him off for a couple of hours. Family members visited him frequently at his Gunnison home, site of some big reunions.
Ralph was preceded in death by his brother, Donald; his sister, Barbara; and a granddaughter, Annamaria Johnson. He is survived by his wife, Marilyn; his children, Perry and wife Carol, Mark and wife Dorothea, Jill and husband Tom, and Gail and husband Gary; grandchildren Christina, Thomas, Michael, Ryan, Brendan and Alex; and brother-in-law Wayne Cowell.
Remember Ralph by opening books with children and, as Faulker said, “Read, read, read. Read everything.”
His ashes will return to Colorado at a later date. The family can be reached at email@example.com.