Cover photo for Wilbur "Bill" Johnson's Obituary
Wilbur "Bill" Johnson Profile Photo
1930 Bill 2024

Wilbur "Bill" Johnson

February 23, 1930 — May 27, 2024

Wilbur "Bill" Johnson passed away at home at a young 94 years old on May 27, 2024, Memorial Day. 

He was born and raised in Sioux Falls SD, adopted by Florence and Stanley Johnson. A natural at public speaking, in high school, he enjoyed acting and performed in 33 plays. He quit high school in his senior year to enlist in the US Navy. There, he trained as a hospital corpsman and served as a medic during the Korean War with the Marines in a rifle company. Bill was proud of his military service but, like many veterans, he did not glorify war or talk about his experiences serving with a combat company. He told this story to Jim Walsh, reporter for the Star Tribune: He was in Japan on R and R, and a psychiatrist asked if he was anxious to get back to Korea. "Are you crazy?" Bill replied, "Have you ever been in a bunker?" After his honorable discharge, he obtained his GED and received his BA from Augustana College, Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Bill married his first wife, Rhoda (Stensrud) while still in the military. They raised four children: Linda Mellon (Bud), Stan (Julie), Rob (Gwen), and Liz Starkey (Bruce).

In his lifetime, Bill had several careers and some overlapped. He was a police officer for 20 years, serving in Sioux Falls SD, Vermilion South Dakota, and he moonlighted in Elizabeth, Minnesota, a small town of many rowdy taverns, having replaced a police officer who had been thrown through a barroom window. Bill was respected for being a fair and friendly cop and as far as anybody knows did not suffer the same consequences as his predecessor. At some point, his moniker became "Wild Bill," a term he embraced. After he moved to the Twin Cities, he volunteered for 10 years for the Saint Paul Police Department as a Neighborhood Assistance Officer. Bill's most passionate work began at the Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center (then Fergus Falls State Hospital). He was hired in 1965 to work as a psychiatric social worker until he decided that what patients needed more was an advocate to speak on their behalf. He became the first defined patient advocate in the Minnesota state hospital system, and perhaps in the country. Bill continued to work with the Department of Public Welfare (now the Department of Human Services, DHS) to assign advocates in all of Minnesota's regional treatment centers. Eventually, it was codified in Minnesota law to establish the Office of Ombudsman for persons with disabilities in state and community-licensed facilities. Advocacy for patients was a new concept, and Bill guest lectured at various colleges, and was a part-time instructor in Social Work at Moorhead State College. Bill was also one of the first members of the National Association for Rights Protection and Advocacy, and with his second wife, Mary, he published its newsletter and organized some of its national conferences.

Bill moved to the Twin Cities in 1983 and worked for the Mental Health Association of Minnesota as the director of a statewide community advocacy program for mental health clients. One of his advocacy efforts involved teens unfairly placed in for-profit treatment centers for diagnoses such as Adjustment Disorder. This rode a wave of television interviews ranging from Australian 60 Minutes to Oprah Winfrey. After he retired, he volunteered for DHS for 10 years as a Review Board member for the state sex offender treatment program. If all that were not enough, Bill was also a licensed private detective for many years into retirement from advocacy. In 1983 he married Mary Olympia. They have one son Gabriel (Jasmine). Bill joined Mary in practicing Aikido, "the peaceful martial art," until Gabe was born, and then he stopped so Mary could continue. Bill was awarded Shodan (first-degree black belt) at age 92 by Zenko Okimura, Shihan, 7 th degree black belt and founder of the World Aikido Aikikai, Inc. for Bill's ongoing support of Aikido and his life of service. Bill was known for his outgoing, extroverted personality. He loved to tell a good story, many of them about his foibles as a cop. He had a knack for turning strangers into friends throughout his life. In his semi-retirement, he spent time at Nina's, his favorite St Paul coffee shop, where patrons leaned into his interest in them and his insights about life. He unashamedly handed out business cards that said, "'Wild Bill' Johnson ...Coffee House Sayer of Sooth." He was just as compassionate to dogs, always carrying a pocketful of dog biscuits. (Leftover biscuits in pockets often accidentally went through the washer and dryer. They don't melt.) Every dog in the neighborhood knew Bill. Bill liked quiet time also and was an avid reader of detective novels and political nonfiction and frequented Subtext Books. He was a sometime poet. He loved sports and played in a softball league in Fergus Falls and enjoyed watching the Minnesota Vikings. You could always tell when the Vikes were ahead because he was silent, but when they played badly, well, let's just say he was loud. He enjoyed various sports with his first and second families, playing catch and hoops and going bass fishing. He coached baseball with Gabe and took him to basketball camps and many games. And when the great grands came along he enjoyed their basketball games when they played in Bloomington. Shortly before Bill died, he was asked what he was most proud of (besides his kids): "I always had a commitment to kindness and compassion toward the powerless." Indeed, when he gave public speeches, he inevitably ended with a quote from a stanza of an Ella Wheeler Wilcox poem: "There are songs enough for the heroes who dwell in the heights the fame. Who will sing for the disappointed and those who've missed their aim?" 

Bill is preceded in death by his parents, his sister Julie Cook, brother-in-law, Lee Cook, and step-grandson, Joel Sampson. He is survived and sorely missed by his wife, Mary Olympia, his five children, 13 grandchildren and step-grandchildren, and 11 great-grandchildren and step-grandchildren.

Bill’s life will be honored on June 15th 2024, 11:00 a.m. at Grace Episcopal Church, 4557 Colfax Ave. South, Minneapolis. Interment will be at the Fort Snelling National Cemetery, Thursday, June 27, 2024 at 1:30 PM.

Donations may be made in Bill's memory to Our Lady of Peace Hospice, 2076 St. Anthony Ave., St. Paul, MN, 55104. Our Lady of Peace is the only hospice in the area that provides in-residence hospice at no charge. The family gives a heartfelt thanks to the wonderful, caring staff of Our Lady of Peace. The family is also grateful to the many friends and relatives who visited Bill, with special acknowledgement to Rev. Susan Daughtry who shepherded Bill and family compassionately through his transition, Leo Judeh for visits and providing nourishment from Shish restaurant, Aikido of Minnesota for support and nourishment, and granddaughter Megan Butler who was there just when the family needed her.

To order memorial trees or send flowers to the family in memory of Wilbur "Bill" Johnson, please visit our flower store.

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Saturday, June 15, 2024

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