Gifts from my father

by Dan Johnson

During the pandemic I found myself with plenty of time to think and reflect. One object of my musing had been the resolution of the four boxes of my father’s diaries lingering in our garage. His diaries began in 1922 and ended in 2000. My father, Rev. Walter W. Johnson, son of Swedish immigrants, was born in Los Angeles in 1901, and died in 2002. He was a pastor and chaplain in the Evangelical Covenant Church for 72 years.

What does one do with several boxes of family history? There was very little family interest in inheriting them and just tossing them out was a truly unbearable outcome. Scanning 25,000 pages seemed far too time consuming and expensive. On a recommendation from a longtime friend, I contacted the archivist at North Park University, the school my parents attended, regarding interest in adding the diaries to the archives. Fortuitously, the archivist said yes.

Before sending them to Chicago, I committed to go through every page of each diary. I was particularly interested in entries related to his role as a pastor, husband and father, our family, and the churches he served. One of the gifts from the diaries was a renewed appreciation for my father’s body of work over three quarters of a century. He had served thirteen different congregations, lived through the 1918 pandemic, two world wars, and a world in the midst of dramatic and transformative change. Those who served in World War II have been labeled the greatest generation. This description was applicable for Dad as well. His whole life was one of service: to his God, church, family, and friends.

There were four children in our family. As the youngest, I was born on March 18, 1946, in Everett, Washington’s General Hospital. Dad’s diary on that day reads: “Took Mother to the hospital at 3 am. Daniel Moody Nordwall Johnson came after 7:15.” I was named for Daniel the prophet, D.L. Moody the Evangelist, Nordwall, honoring my maternal grandfather, a Swedish immigrant Covenant pastor and Johnson, the family name.

The birth went well but on day two, warning signs appeared in his diary. Like my sister Anne Marie born three years prior, I had what was labeled the RH condition – where the mother’s blood type is RH negative, the father’s is RH positive and the baby is RH positive, creating significant antibody issues. The condition emerged in a mother’s later pregnancies. In the 1940s there were no known cures for this condition and the survival rate for RH babies was less than 5 percent.

The doctors decided to give Anne Marie and subsequently me direct blood transfusions from our father. During the 50 days each of us was hospitalized, his diaries contain a fascinating chronological record of his persistent faithfulness and daily visits, our ever-changing conditions, and the number of cc’s given in each transfusion. Dad gave Anne Marie a total of 16 blood transfusions and gave me 37.

Two days after Anne Marie’s birth his diary states: “To hospital in a.m. Baby better and doctor says 50-50 chance now – Praise the Lord. He is able to carry her through.” To think that Dad could give thanks when the odds for her survival were 50 percent is remarkable. His favorite hymn was “Thanks to God for My Redeemer” – “Thanks for pain and thanks for pleasure, thanks for comfort in despair; Thanks for roses by the wayside, thanks for thorns their stems contain.” For him, hope and gratitude were enduring words; hope in healing and restoration, hope in a better tomorrow, hope that everything would work out OK, and gratitude that God was merciful and ever present. Ironically, when Anne Marie was eventually taken home from the hospital, one of the doctors was heard to tell her attending physician: “Giving the baby her father’s blood was all wrong.” Her doctor responded: “You may be right, but it worked!”

Dad and Mom not only gave us life, Dad was also our redeemer, one who extricates or helps another overcome something very detrimental and destructive; one who makes good for another. Dad literally gave us his blood, that we might live

I was blessed with his gift of friendship. During my adolescent years in Chicago, Dad enjoyed taking me to Wrigley Field to see the Cubs play. I was able to see many of the greatest players of the 1950s. That time together was always very special. He showed me how to keep a scorecard, share a hot dog and experience the beauty of the ballpark. I think it also gave him welcomed respite from the exhausting schedule of the pastorate.

On my sixteenth birthday he sent me a letter of encouragement, offering both guidance and hope. He urged me to keep the faith and consider a career of service. He taught me that an educated life was a high priority and the life of an educator a high calling. I treasure those words even today.

Shortly after my mother died in 2001, I was visiting Dad and we went out for a walk. We talked about Mom and the very significant partnership she shared with him in his life and ministry. As we walked, he held my arm, turned towards me and said: “I’m so glad we are pals.” What a way to sum up a relationship in one understated yet profound word—pals. A year later, my brother Dave and I were visiting him shortly before he died. He had been moving in and out of consciousness. When we entered his room, his eyes were closed. He slowly opened them and looked at us. A smile broke across his face and he said: “My sons, my beloved sons!” There was the blessing, the ultimate gift of his love for us.