Dennis Johnson and Ann Osmond

Recorded July 3, 2005 Archived July 3, 2005 00:00 minutes
Audio not available

Interview ID: MBY000194


Dennis talked about his work as minister, which he deeply enjoyed, as well as about his family.

Subject Log / Time Code

- deciding to become a minister (all the way to 11:45) - especially at 10:30 - his fathers spirituality
- describes seeing Martin Luther King speak
- reads a letter from one of his parishoners


  • Dennis Johnson
  • Ann Osmond


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00:00 Here we go.

00:06 My name is Ann Osmond. I'm 36 years old and today is Sunday, July 3rd 2005. We're in Minneapolis, Minnesota downtown and I am going to be interviewing my father.

00:24 I'm Dennis Johnson. I'm going to be 67 years old later this month.

00:30 And I'm here with my daughter.

00:36 Thanks for doing this Dad are both thrilled when you wanted to do it would be so much fun while I was trying to think about what I wanted to ask you one of the questions that I wanted to talk about for my family history, cuz I think that your family is so interesting growing up in Iowa and a small town in Iowa and I think it's fair to say that you consider your family poverty level at that time. We were asleep or but we we didn't have that grinding poverty that I think some people experience, but we were poor.

01:18 Wasn't thinking of the fact that there are five kids in that family humble beginnings and yet all of those kids all of you kids grew up to be very successful in your individual lives and careers and I've been thinking about how did that happen?

01:35 How is that possible that you were able to?

01:40 Live in a small town without many resources and yet achieved what you all have achieved. What was it about your family structure that

01:50 Send me that possible. So interesting that you ask it that way, I think about that property question is I remember what Dwight Eisenhower said once when he was asked that same question. He said we were poor, but we didn't know it and I feel that way about our family is that the S. We were very much aware that we didn't have things that other people had other people had homes. We lived in a seven people in a four-room apartment shotgun style. We didn't have running hot water. We had running cold water, but no hot water of we didn't have a car. My dad had a truck that he used in his delivery service. So we knew there were things that separated us out from other people in terms of what they had. Never. Remember my mother responding once to a question about whether or not we were middle class, and she said well in terms of money, we're probably lower class, but

02:50 In terms of who we are in our values were middle class and maybe that comes from the fact that she was actually raised with money, but her father had lost it all in the depression and my dad's background was modest but not poverty-stricken so we had few resources, but we had a great encouragement. I think the strong family structure was the thing that enabled us to transcend that very close-knit family one of those towns where you know, the old African proverb it takes a village to raise a child while we lived in a small town 1300 people in and out of the stores where the shop owners newest in and out of people's homes friends homes could go into any relatives home without knocking it was sort of the nurture and care of a whole community.

03:50 Did you did you think that when you were a boy that you would grow up and go to college? Was that something that you always had in your mind or did that seem unreachable? Remember the mom and dad did not have them missions for us. My mother had an eighth grade education. My father had a ninth grade education. I remember my mother saying that her dream was that we would graduate from high school and I certainly in terms of what my dad wanted for us. He would have been very content had we all just stayed right there grown-up in that town then with him. I raised her children there so they weren't driving us toward education or success for that matter, but I think we were all kids who started did well in school. And so it was just beginning people were going to college World War had ended the vets were coming back with the GI Bill.

04:50 There was a greater emphasis on education and certainly by the time I was late in the high school, you know was Sputnik giving the challenge to America to put greater resources into education a greater emphasis on it. But you know the real impetus I think came from just some good teachers who when they saw you had an ability to learn encourage that I have to give a lot of credit to my sister Karen who my folks didn't think that we could go to college. How could they afford that that was one of the things they always said and yet there was a superintendent of schools RB Brown who identified my sister as someone who would really make a good teacher.

05:36 And so he personally took her to a college visit along along with another a high school girl and encouraged her and she got a two years teacher certificate and when she was out she helped us or she loves to tell the story about how I sent her money my paper route money. My I took tape set the theater and Center that that money and bought her a clothing and and things and then when she was teaching she bought my high school graduation suit to help me to get started in college and we just kept helping one another my brother had decided by that time that he was going to go to school even though he doesn't seem to demonstrate that same potential he went to school and in terms of what he did that later is just amazing, but it was a story I think of a family that just

06:32 Started to help each other and encourage one another and so Mom and Dad went to the bank borrowed money did what they could to to help us. So what did they think when you wanted to to go to college out of state are they weren't very happy because I chose a related school and those are generally regarded is more expensive than a state school. And then when I decided that I was going into the ministry, you know, they would say well we can't afford that but you know, how can we do that? You know, it was always that concern for money. But after that was expressed then they somehow found a way to make it happen course, we worked all the time all through high school all through college show.

07:25 When did you know that you wanted to go into the ministry?

07:29 Well, that was a gradual process. I think that the number of factors really came into play there one is that we were members of the church had good experiences and high school youth groups confirmation Church camp ahead of Pastor who was very good to me interested in my life and gave me some encouragement. My dad was a very spiritual person not in the sense of he didn't he didn't preach at us or Force anything on us, but just the way he would open us to The Wonder of nature. We are we go on the rides in the country with him and then talk about the wonders of the world and asked us to think about things and it just sort of put that spirit in our heart that made just think about the bigger questions. I think real Turning Point came when there were a number of tragic deaths in our family.

08:26 And that was at a very impressionable age for me around age 14 when people close to us were dying and 10 year old boy killed 23 year old sister of his was had died of a rare blood disease dentist. Yeah. My cousin said Shirley Ann Gordon double cousins really and they were and I just remember standing at Gordy's grave and it just sort of hit me is that why you could be 10 years old and I live one moment and dead the next and you know what's life about and doesn't make any sense some

09:05 I guess also at that time I saw the kind of comfort that the church and the pastors were able to provide and I thought well.

09:14 Okay, there's probably nothing more worthwhile doing then to and to bring this message of Hope to people in in tough circumstances. So that was the beginning and my nana and papa glad about that that you wanted to go to the minister with a concerned. I think they were proud. No other family members that they were done that but it was obviously at that time recognized as something that was an honorable calling and people admired those who'd editing course. I also got this kind of thing from other people that owe, you know, if you give a speech or something, they didn't say to me while you're a good speaker. Maybe you ought to go to enter politics, or maybe you ought to be a lawyer. They said you want to be a pastor give you those hints about what you are to do to your with your life. And and you think about it then that's eventually the direction I went.

10:11 Dennis can I ask you do you have any specific memories of those outings with your father like something he said to you or place that you went?

10:22 Like when he would take you on drives and and and expose you to the wonders of the world. Do you remember any do it was just for one that he was he was a wonderful Storyteller and he was here was he he was not an educated person except he was self-educated, but he would he know the scriptures and he could open those things up to you. And then he said he'd asked you to look at your fingerprints and talk about what an amazing creation of God you were and and he he could talk about the wheat fields and the corn growing in in such a way that there was almost a mystical quality to it. And Andy have my very first image of God really combined the face of my father.

11:14 And then the face of my mother's mother.

11:17 My grandmother and she had such a kind face. She did so much sewing for us and making of things for a so when God was maker of heaven on Earth by my grandmother's face popped up there and then God as father unite the face of my father somehow those were combined in my earliest recollection of what I thought God look like

11:43 Tell me about when you met mom while I was in college when I first met your mother, and she was the best friend of my roommate best girlfriend and Jim and Diane introduced us to one another. I was at Gustavus don't you meet we were I was covering a story for the Gustavus. Say your book. I was the sports editor and we were going to play over at Saint Olaf College doubleheader. And so Diane was going with him cuz he was the sports editor of the weekly, and we went over there, and she said let's go by and see our friend rats redmer and we drove around town and she likes to say that there were no sparks. Nothing clicked at that time. Probably true. We just really were introduced to one another but sometime later.

12:44 Through Jim and Diane again. We had a second date on a New Year's Eve. And again, it took a long time in between dates. And then I was coming back to the STP Terraria to work in the state hospital at that time summer internship and that she was going to summer school and Van Cato State and we met a wedding wedding of Ted Murrieta.

13:11 And took her out and it was fast and furious for the rest of the summer before I had to go off for internship and that following the fall Thanksgiving. We're engaged called chemistry, but there was just kind of a spark you met somebody that you wanted to meet again and course. I thought she was awfully attractive. She was cute till 9. We just fit with all of our friends, which I think is an important thing too. And we we love to talk ideas, which we still do to this day. I killed her about how we've done. One of our first dates were sitting there at this club than that. We're talking about Hemingway.

14:11 Flights that came for my reading Hemingway and we laugh at that now but that's still a large part of our Lives. Today's talking about ideas whether it's politics or literature. How did you propose to her? When I was kind of corny I had this big thing planned out which I was thinking about every romantic possibility in the world and somehow schedules just got kind of goofed up and I was staying at her parents house and came down in the morning and all of a sudden I just had the inspiration to put the diamond that I have bought and her cereal box. And so she poured it out into her cereal bowl. That was at the yeah. Well, they were hanging around the edges. So yeah, they sure were what did you think of them? Well it first, you know Ralph.

15:11 Kind of a Christian guy and he took him a while to warm up to the idea of his daughter marrying a minister and you know, cuz he he wasn't sure about that and let that after after time. We became very close and over the years closer still I think Lou was was fine with it from the start but she even said to Carol. She said well I had other Ambitions for you. Probably, you know, I I think it was just you don't make a lot more money and you know their daughter people but you know, they were extra religious her Pie as her up or things but the minister didn't always have a great image still do it today, but you know, there's some great ones.

16:11 There's some

16:12 Milquetoast that they have met around along the way that probably

16:17 Now, you know there's other things to do.

16:21 Somewhere along the line after he got married and finished Seminary you had to make a decision about where to work. And you chose to go to Texas. How why have you ever even been to the South never matter fact, I was going to school in Newton Center, Massachusetts graduate school. I decided to pick up an extra degree after seminary in psychology and counseling and I went out there and so I was away from where the process was happening for seminarians to be placed in new parishes.

16:57 And I was sitting out there one night minding my own business and make a phone call and it was the Bishop from Texas and he said hey, I heard about you from a friend of yours and wondering if you'd be interested in coming to Dallas and to be interviewed for this Parish down there. I thought Dallas cheat John Kennedy. I just been assassinated the year before.

17:25 So what I had a friend who gone to Southern Methodist in Dallas and he gave me another side of it was really funny when we decided to go to Dallas sitting out in Massachusetts, you know, they almost looked upon us as Brave pioneers and real social activist that we were so brave as to go into the heart of segregation and to leave those people to Enlightenment and it was cold and I got off the plane at Love Field in Dallas in a blast of hot air hit me and April and I I just said hello. This is home. This is good and the people were so wonderful and so welcoming and then she was willing to be an adventurer. She didn't necessarily want to just stay go back to what we had always known and we

18:25 I had the Good Fortune to travel coast to coast in those first couple years that we were married and love that sense of adventure and decided. Hey, this would be this would be fun. We can be down there a few years and now, you know, we can always come back but you can't always go out. So it was that sense of adventure. Let's do it now and it was kind of a tumultuous time in Texas right? Very everywhere 1965 when we went there.

18:59 What did you think of it? How did they react to you? I guess only about a third of the people were Texas natives which we love them. They gave such flavor to everything and the other two-thirds came from all over the United States Dallas being a very Cosmopolitan City. So it's not that we were in the midst of a bunch of rednecks though. They there were some when they were conservative enough. All right, but I think of those years and it was it was it was the Vietnam was going on all the controversy around that civil rights. The movement was going the drug culture was in full bloom. It was just the beginning of feminism just the beginning of some awareness of gays is and lesbians and you know, so that was this paintable upheaval and and we got it.

19:59 The new shoes such as black partnership matching a block in the suburbs with a block in the inner-city. We were involved in school busing and open housing, and I guess one of the great memories of that time as meeting Martin Luther King jr.

20:16 When he spoke to the Dallas pastors Association

20:20 Real highlight. Let me know when he came into this hotel ballroom and he walked past me and I swear it was just crackling with electricity because he was John T. He looked and a cocky, you know, what he goes up and takes the microphone and he began to speak and it was a slow kind start. Didn't you? Could I thought to myself all Kings tired today? He's giving us all these old cliches and you can tell he's been traveling too much and speaking to too many groups and was in that wonderful style black preaching where you began to turn up the heat by degrees and suddenly you're on the edge of your seat and hanging on his every word and he finally got you in the palm of his hands and you swear you do anything he asked you to do.

21:15 Ready to March ready to go. It was a it was a wonderful experience and that was just maybe a year before he was assassinated.

21:25 When you think about that church Bethany, what are you most proud of your time there? What I'm most proud of is that you know, we can talk about the way the church grew or the building programs we had but I think I'm really proud of the fact that we tackled all those controversies and yet we're able to hold the people together. We didn't come apart like like some places did there was a sense of trust about what we were doing and we could really disagree and but it was a remarkable group of people. Most of us did not have not grown up in Texas. So we have family all over the country. And so we became each other's family. Very close. The people we worshipped with we could also party with we could celebrate with and those are lifelong friendships today.

22:24 The world was certainly seem to be in crisis during those years as it seems now too but during that time you and Mom made the decision to have kids to do worry about bringing children into a world. That was so

22:40 Difficult, you know, that's a really good question. But I think we were both just sort of ingrained with what people did, you know the roles we didn't think about all the choices. We just knew that we were going to get married and we would raise a family that wasn't a big discussion. Like should we do this? Should we not do it now course when when you children were born, you know, you get very concerned about the world and what you're going to live then you know, we were there some real serious challenges living where we did in Lake Highlands in Dallas with the too much effluents too many drugs.

23:25 Just an incredible challenges and problems and in the city. That's why we finally welcomed the chance to go to a small college town in Minnesota wasn't our plan, but it just came up out of the blue. And we said what better place to raise kids than in small-town American when you think about the family that you grew up in and you think about our family the kids you raised. What are the what are the similarities there? What do you think that you carried from your own car family into ours? I think a couple things and in that is the sense of family and how important family is.

24:10 And I see this in your daughter Lily. She's not even three years old and she talks about how important family is to her and that she loves her family and she wants us all together and I think that's what I got from my mom and dad and that they got from their parents and that so much of the purpose of life is tied up in being able to pass on what you received. My folks did so much for me and you wonder sometimes why we do so much for you and and it's because of that in and we expect nothing in return except that you do that for your children and your pass on a legacy.

24:54 Have you been?

24:57 Amazed at how different your children turn. I can't imagine that we were and I always say that's a good thing because I could not have imagined either of you if you or your brother, I I could not have shaped you into the wonderful people that you are. It's just you know, Andy's story is such an incredible one because he went off into a completely different path than what I would have chosen for him and dependents like somebody in your family.

25:36 Well, they're certainly were independent persons back there. But no, I can't really identify. Anyone had on. I think it was his path. We should say probably that Andy was one of our your brother that chose not to have a college education. He said right from the start that he was never going to college. He loved the farm. He came home when he was a freshman in high school and told us that he a town kid with no Farm background had joined FFA and signed up for egg.

26:12 Good grief, I just dismissed it. I said where you can't do that into you because you have to take College Prep courses. I'm not going to college while so you say that now but you know, when the opportunity comes you want to be sure that if you want to you'll be able to if you don't take the right courses, it won't be a choice this while I'm not going so the real issue for Mom and for me it came right down to how much do you push I told you can't be a farmer. You can't do that on that. We're in the midst of the 80's the farm crisis. You either have to marry the bankers only daughter or the Farmers Only daughter because there's no way you can do it. So finally after pushing and shoving and back and forth. He said to me one night when we were saying goodnight. It said Dad. If God didn't want me to do this. Why did he put this love in my heart for the farm and at that point I just I surrendered.

27:12 I said this kid, you know, it's got to find his own way and he says to to this day. That's absolutely the best thing we could have done people will say what you people were so smart, you know delayed and ego is on the way. So wise I said, I'm not sure we had much of a choice but then you finally do realize that your children turn out it's surprising ways and if we could have molded you and in certain ways we never would have had the surprising little lights that have come to us. I mean, you you followed more of a traditional path in terms of you know, you were the one who is going to do education.

27:55 And you value that which was also a value look like that are you know, you never liked the far.

28:04 When I think about your story of when you were little boy in Akron

28:10 It did you did you know that you wanted to travel the world and the time that you were boy or is that something that just evolve later as opportunities came up probably in the 40. She don't far away places with strange-sounding names. I want to see for myself somehow that just kind of

28:31 Soaked into my mind, but I never really did that until I was in my forties when I took my first trip overseas.

28:40 And I'll never forget standing in the midst of East Berlin communist control Berlin the sight of so much of the Nazi activity the book burnings and everything in there at night amidst the bombed-out buildings. I could hear the footsteps of the goose-stepping soldiers in and then all I could think of is I'm a little Danny Johnson and I'm standing in Berlin. I just I couldn't get over it. It was just overwhelming to me that I could have that opportunity moment since then. I've been in maybe most major cities in the world and traveled everywhere and every time it's just an amazement to me to think that here. I am I have this opportunity to do these things.

29:31 Why do you think you and Mom have had such a successful marriage?

29:38 Well funny 43 years 42 years ago last June 23rd.

29:47 I think it's ducks that were so unusual in so many ways, but first of all.

29:53 We had to learn how to fight out of fight fair. I used to actually teach those course this when I was a bastard, but how to deal with that negative side and how to finally come to the point that that's a natural part of every relationship and it just understand that it takes work and let love is not a feeling you can I feelings come and go but it was that sense of commitment to a relationship and a commitment to say we're going to make this work you no end and I think our vows were very important to us soon. Yeah, once in awhile, you feel like who did I marry the right person ever marry the right person because you work through some of those tough times and you become even stronger in your relationship and I think we had the advantage of because

30:53 I was doing a masters in psychology and counseling we'd go to enrichment seminars marriage seminars and then we got so we can teach at and that you learned so much about relationships and the importance of the little things in the importance of the conversation. I like to think that marriage is just a lifelong conversation. You may start with Hemingway, but it's so many other other things.

31:22 What type of forgiveness involved in there too?

31:27 What traits do you think?

31:30 Mom that you see continuing down Mom's family line like Grandma Lou and mom and me are there. Is there any threats that you see there? I think what you see in all of those women and now you didn't know your grandmother Lou but she was a very loving mother and grandmother just the way that I see I saw her mom nurture cuddle. You kids draw you close be so physical with you. I see you doing that to your daughters if there's a gentleness about all of you. You also have some physical characteristics. I like to but it's

32:14 It it's your mother's just the most remarkable person in terms of she's she's be the first to say she's got all of her faults, but I tell you she only wants to help and she's so loving and just the way you deal with one another.

32:36 Do you think you have any traits from your dad from my mother used to say I've got my dad's temper?

32:46 Think I learned to control that over the years and channel that you probably didn't see it too much wants to know how you did was a wonderful Storyteller and had a great sense of humor. And I love I like to think that I have those same qualities from him. He said I'm a storyteller.

33:10 I don't think Dad would be amazed. I think he'd be very pleased with some of the things I've done but I think all I ever wanted from us. That was that we'd be decent human beings that would value the the family and the things that the family values and that you know of faith family and friends. Those were the important work matters.

33:33 You had those family songs philosophy sayings. I just think in terms of a flaccid V of life, but we've been given so much and I think you just have to live your life with gratitude.

33:54 There's a the Mystic Meister Eckhart said

34:02 New Year's Day quoted by dag hammarskjold and so another year and what if it should be our last how could we ever be the cheated ones? We who have been overpaid for every service rendered. I thought about that often times and I'll just sort of there's Grace in the universe there. So undeserved blessings that come

34:25 And there's another one that I had a sign on my desk. They just said that life is short and we have not much time for gladdening the hearts of those who Journey the road with us. Oh make haste to love be swift to be kind.

34:47 Those are sort of guiding principles, I guess.

34:52 So now that you're semi-retired.

34:56 And you look back on the years that you spent in the ministry and then I can save us.

35:07 What do you think was for you the?

35:10 The Highlight are there years that you think those were just the best years.

35:18 You know, I've been incredibly lucky here in that in terms of what age I am almost at the age. I am is the best year of my life. I've had good health and I have been creative and productive and I think that's what makes you feel good and makes you feel that life is worth. Well, you know their challenges I had aging when you aren't able to do those things or other things happened to you, but I've been very lucky in that sense and

35:51 If I look back over the years, I think it's the friendships that you make the peoples whose lives you touch.

35:58 I've brought something that I just thought I might read cuz I think it sums it up it this was given to me as a poem. I have to your mother and I left Dallas that First Parish and that was such a close group and a woman wrote. This sums it up for me. You laughed with us you cried with us. He baptized does you buried us he rejoiced with us you mourned with us. You confirmed us. You taught us. You married us. You consult us you celebrated with us you crave. This you ate with us you drink with us you stretch their minds you comforted are spirits you flew kites with us.

36:41 He sang with us you preach to us. You were real to us. You called us by name Dennis and Carol. You were part of us. Thanks be to God. Well, when you get something like that that comes your way as an affirmation of what your life is meant. I guess that's that's a great satisfaction. But my chief Joy today is is watching you with Lillian and Ella and being able to be part of your lives and watching those children grow up.

37:15 And you just see things come to fruition.

37:24 Maybe that's a good place to end. Thank you so much.