Frank Johnson

Frank Johnson, 52, state attorney, devoted dad
Katie Kerwin Mccrimmon, Rocky Mountain News

14 April 2006
Rocky Mountain News
The night of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, as fighter jets buzzed over Colorado's eerily quiet skies, parents at a local school event worried there might be another wave of attacks that would strike Denver and other U.S. cities.

That is until Frank Johnson spoke up in his calm, reassuring voice. "No. I think this is over now," he said, with the modest wisdom that was his calling card.

Soon after, in typical form, Mr. Johnson plunged into a study of Islam so he could better understand the wrath aimed at America.

Frank R. Johnson was a deep thinker, a trusted state lawyer and a devoted dad who loved entertaining his 9-year-old daughter and her pals with Magic Cow, a plush puppet with a zany cow voice.

Mr. Johnson died unexpectedly April 1. He was 52.

In late November, after noticing he became winded too easily, Mr. Johnson learned that something was wrong with his heart. For weeks, he endured numerous tests and in mid-January he was diagnosed with amyloidosis, a disease that damaged his heart by depositing protein in the tissue.

The disease caused debilitating exhaustion that was torture for an adventurous soul who had climbed Fourteeners and hitchhiked to Guatemala in his hippie days.

Family and friends were hopeful that a bone marrow transplant could provide a cure. But Mr. Johnson couldn't seem to regain his strength.

He died at the California Contemporary home in east Denver that he and his wife lovingly remodeled a couple of years ago.

Mr. Johnson was born March 3, 1954, into an Air Force family in South Dakota. He eventually served in the Air Force in Arkansas and Italy. He found his professional niche at the Colorado attorney general's office, where he worked for 18 years, most recently for the Air Quality Control Division. His patience for arcane legal minutiae was legendary.

After Mr. Johnson's death, Gov. Bill Owens made a special proclamation, declaring April 6 - the day of Mr. Johnson's memorial service - a day in his honor.

Casey Shpall, deputy attorney general for natural resources, remembered her colleague as an indomitable spirit with an insatiable curiosity.

"When talking about the intricacies of some new Environmental Protection Agency regulation, a gleam would come into Frank's eyes. Of course, when he tried to explain it to the rest of us, a glaze would come over ours," Shpall said at the memorial service, held at Park Hill Congregational Church.

"Frank was a man who could see and empathize with all sides of an issue. Sometimes even sides that weren't there," Shpall said. "His understanding and compassion for all he came in contact with was a unique gift we will all miss mightily. We must, however, take solace in the fact that Frank is now with the angels where he belongs, likely inquiring into their wing composition and flight patterns."

Mr. Johnson had studied Spanish for years and loved traveling through Mexico and Latin America. At the start of his legal career, he helped file a class-action lawsuit on behalf of migrant workers in the San Luis Valley. He had recently done pro-bono work for immigrants in Denver and hoped to do much more of that work in his retirement.

"Frank liked people just the way they were and accepted them on their own terms," said the Rev. Andrea LaSonda Anastos, who conducted Mr. Johnson's service.

Compassion came naturally for him. Long before he found his calling as a lawyer, Mr. Johnson had worked a number of blue collar jobs in sugar beet and fish hook factories and even driving a cab. He loved traveling the world and discovering Colorado's many natural treasures from the plains to the peaks.

He was always on a quest to discover life's meaning.

"Wisdom was more important than intelligence," said Mr. Johnson's high school buddy, Randy Russell. "His friendship was like winning a gold medal."

Mr. Johnson found his greatest satisfaction when he married his wife, Sarah, in 1993 and they had a daughter three years later. Sarah Johnson is a water quality expert at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Mr. Johnson loved being a dad. He was so gentle that kids were drawn to him. He cooked up numerous schemes to make life fun, including letting his daughter, Leah, and neighborhood kids paint the walls and then pound them with hammers before they came down in the remodel.

The day before he died, Mr. Johnson updated a Web journal that he shared with friends. Spring was coming. And he'd gotten to be outside. He was hopeful:

"I had several good days at the end of last week and the beginning of this week. On Saturday, we went to Barr Lake State Park for a picnic. It was a beautiful day. I sat on a park bench and enjoyed being outdoors for the first time since November while Sarah and Leah took a walk."

Friends are determined to carry his warm spirit with them.

"He acted like a gentle breeze, but his impact on us was definitely larger than life," Russell said.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Johnson is survived by a brother, Kevin Johnson, of Loveland, and a sister, Charlene Hickey, of Bend, Ore.

Contributions can be sent to Amyloid Research Fund, Boston University School of Medicine, 715 Albany St., Boston, MA 02118- 2526, or El Centro Humanitario, 2260 California St., Denver, CO 80205.
2006 Denver Publishing Company, Rocky Mountain News.