With gratitude for his immeasurable influence, we announce the passing of Ralph Elmer Johnson Jr., age 85, on October 17, 2020 due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease. Ralph has returned to his home above and has joyfully reunited with his sweetheart LaVeta, who suffered from the same ailment and preceded him in death earlier this year. Born April 17, 1935 in Carson City, Nevada to Ralph and Ethel (Hearn) Johnson, he learned the value of hard work and faithfulness to the Lord from his father and mother. His mother was fiercely protective of her children. When Ralph Jr. was a baby, after she heard that another baby in their town had died from the heat, she famously announced to her husband that they were moving. Ralph was blessed to grow up with one younger brother and two younger sisters who loved and cherished him.
Ralph was a very competitive athlete. He excelled in basketball, track and baseball. Some of his athletic achievements included earning a full scholarship to play basketball at Weber State, winning state championships in the pole vault and the half mile, and being drafted as a pitcher for a farm team of the Pittsburg Pirates. Ralph often challenged his kids to a game of horse, and he practiced endlessly to increase his free throw record, which during those years was 36 consecutive free throws. He later excelled at golf, and none of his children ever beat him in a single game of golf, even into his older years. He was always in pursuit of a hole in one. He loved teeing off with a “Big Bertha” and always had the same answer about what to get him for Christmas or his birthday—golf tees. He enjoyed running on the American River bike trail in Sacramento, and he was so competitive that he wouldn’t let any other runner pass him on the trail. He once trained only three weeks for the Sacramento marathon and came back with heat stroke from the effort. Nothing ever got in the way of his drive.
Ralph graduated from high school in Lehi, UT in 1953 and attended Weber State for one year on a basketball scholarship. He then enlisted in the US Army. He went through basic training with a friend and liked to tell the story of ducking behind some trees with his buddy as his unit was setting out on a hike with heavy rucksacks. Hours later they returned to the same tree and jumped back in line as the column went past them. Ralph was sent to Korea as the war was winding down and fortunately he never saw active combat. He did play percussion in the Army band, learned to type while in Korea, and played on the Army basketball team. He was always very patriotic and instilled that patriotism in his children.
Following his military service, Ralph was called on a mission to Oslo, Norway. He had studied a little Japanese while in the Army and wanted to serve in Japan. In those days missionaries were interviewed by general authorities, and following his interview Ralph returned home elated and announced to his parents that he was told he would serve in Japan. His mother’s response was, “No, you will serve in Norway.” Sure enough, weeks later he received official news of his call to Norway. Ralph learned through this experience and others that his mother had special spiritual gifts.
His mother also told Ralph that during his mission he would have the privilege of shaking President David O. McKay’s hand. Church presidents didn’t travel much in those days, but when the London temple was dedicated by President McKay, Ralph was asked to travel with a group of missionaries from the Norwegian mission to sing during the temple dedication. He shook President McKay’s hand.
One of the highlights of his mission happened as it was ending. His mother requested permission for Ralph to extend his mission to do family history research. She had come to a dead end in researching their Norwegian family history and needed hands on in Norway. His mother sent him names and dates of deceased family members with these instructions: “Go to the Oslo train station and pray like crazy which train to board, then pray until you are told to get off the train.” He did this and found himself in a little town, where he eventually knocked on the door of a small cabin high in the hills. Once the man who answered the door had perused the names and dates Ralph brought, he suddenly embraced Ralph and exclaimed, “Come in, we’re family!” This relative had spent his life doing family history research, and Ralph came home with hundreds of names as well as a new family friend. Another highlight of his mission was baptizing the Bo family who later moved to Utah. He stayed close with them his whole life.
After his mission Ralph attended Brigham Young University, where he met his eternal companion, LaVeta Rencher, on a blind double date. The two boys had both been missionaries in Norway and spoke in Norwegian in front of and about the ladies until LaVeta raised her malt shake and with her best attempt at a Norwegian accent exclaimed, “Skol,” or “Cheers.” Afraid she might have understood them, the boys immediately quit talking in Norwegian.
Ralph and LaVeta were married September 9, 1960 in the Mesa, Arizona temple and had seven children together. Following their marriage and graduation from Brigham Young University they moved to Salt Lake City where Ralph finished his master’s degree. He took his first teaching job in Modesto, CA and later moved his growing family to St. Paul, MN, where he studied and received his PhD. He then moved his family to Sacramento, CA, where he taught at California State University Sacramento for the remainder of his career.
Ralph was fiercely loyal and devoted to LaVeta. He loved her deeply, considering his highest aim in life that of loving and protecting her and helping her achieve her highest ambitions. He tolerated no disrespect in any form from anyone towards her. Once when a doctor criticized her for being pregnant with Cheryl at age 40, he went to the office and gave the doctor a piece of his mind. Ralph believed that the greatest gift you can give your children is to love their mother. He truly understood and lived the scripture, “Thou shalt love thy wife with all thy heart, and shalt cleave unto her and none else.”
Ralph moved his family to Sweden in 1974 for the job of resident director for study abroad programs for California State University. The great trial of Ralph’s life came during this time when he lost his youngest son Stephen, who had Down’s Syndrome. Stephen was only one year old, and his other children remember their parents’ deep distress and suffering as they grieved for their little boy. After the funeral Ralph gathered the children in a circle and taught them the plan of salvation. The children were also suffering deeply, but a great and tender mercy was extended that day in a small apartment in Uppsala, Sweden. The spiritual witness of a pre-mortal life, the purpose of mortal life, and a glorious life after death was manifested powerfully and plainly. The children can never forget or deny the overwhelming feeling of peace and knowledge directly communicated that day by the Spirit of God. After 46 years, Ralph is once again with his boy, Stephen Nephi Johnson.
Ralph took his stewardship as the father of seven children just as seriously as his responsibilities as a husband. There was never an end to the sacrifice he was willing to make for his children. He never missed an important event in the lives of his children, including sports events, dance or music recitals, plays, etc. Emblematic of his service to his children were the weekly flights to Southern California when Paul was training in Mission Viejo--which included sleeping in the family car Paul drove, a 1978 Toyota Corolla. Another example was Ralph getting up in the middle of the night while camping in the Sierra Nevada Mountains to drive the two hours to Sacramento to deliver newspapers for a child who forgot to get a substitute for a paper route. Yet another was driving David around in the middle of the night collecting newspapers to recycle. The papers on the left side of the street he would recover, leaning way out to haul in heavy bags of newspapers--which gave him a hernia. Sorry Dad! There were smaller things just as memorable, such as picking up the boys from early morning swimming practice with a quart of hot chocolate. Once LaVeta went back to college, Ralph took over many of the household chores -- early morning breakfast, making the evening meal, doing the dishes and washing clothes. He was a father for all seasons!
Ralph was extremely goal driven and taught his children to make goals and work towards them. There were always athletic goal charts posted on bedroom walls. He had a fierce resolve, determination, and stubbornness all wrapped up into one. He and his loving, peacemaker wife made a great, one-of-a-kind parenting team to raise their children.
Ralph understood the importance of hard work and passed on to his children this strong work ethic. If the children weren’t sleeping, swimming, running, going to school, or otherwise engaged in an approved activity, they were working. Some of the children remember hiding in any number of outside locations hoping to avoid yet another chore. But the voice always rang out, “Boys, where are you?”, followed by the inevitable discovery.
He had a flare for adventure. While in Sweden he became an undercover agent of the CIA. His first case in Sweden required an accidental meeting and eventually Ralph nurtured a friendship with the contact. LaVeta initially knew nothing about this but eventually discovered the truth. She was not happy about it and Ralph gave up his second career. He was, however, always looking for side gigs to augment his professor’s salary. These included obtaining a private investigator license, delivering court summons, and repossessing many, many cars, usually in the late evening. He even wrote an article for a women’s magazine entitled, “I steal cars for a living.”
Ralph visited St. Petersburg during Soviet times and smuggled a Russian Bible into the country, which was strictly prohibited at that time. He entered a church and presented the Bible to a woman who clutched the book to her chest and ran to a man nearby to show him her new treasure. Immediately the man started looking around trying to find the purveyor of the gift. Fearing the KGB, Ralph ducked low and scrambled for the exit and made it safely back to his hotel. Upon leaving the country he smuggled some Soviet currency out for the boys’ coin collection, a feat accomplished by cutting off the end of his toothpaste tube and shoving the coins deep into the paste and rolling it up. The children did not appreciate the risks involved until later years. We still shake our heads at what could have happened if he had been caught.
Ralph was an absolutely crazy driver. If there was a lane of traffic five lanes over going 1 mph faster than the lane he was traveling in, he would move over, and quickly. Cutting someone off was not an important concern if it meant arriving at the swimming meet on time for Paul’s first race. Darting in and out of traffic to save a couple of minutes was the order of the day. Those in the backseat offered the silent prayers, those in the front seat just closed their eyes. He was once the victim of a road rage incident that ended after defending himself with the police- issued stun gun located under the driver’s seat. Yes, he spent thousands of hours driving back and forth to track and swimming meets, basketball and baseball games. He did have an uncanny sense for directions and would pay attention to details such as what percentage of church goers arrived late for church.
He was famous for mush cereal that the children loathed. Despite the focus on healthy eating, he was a fan of Egg McMuffins and HoHo’s. And who can forget the Sunday dinners that were really breakfast foods. Awesome!
Ralph was a lifelong faithful member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He especially enjoyed serving in a bishopric in Folsom, CA. He loved to serve with LaVeta in the Sacramento temple and traveled with her to every temple in the United States and a few outside the United States. Missionary service was also deeply important to him. Besides his mission in Norway as a young man, he served three full-time missions with his wife, in Germany, Nauvoo, IL and Roseville, CA, and he was always an enthusiastic supporter of his children and grandchildren in their missionary service. One of the great blessings of his missions with LaVeta was being a site leader at the Carthage, IL visitors center. His testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith grew stronger during the months they served there. He loved the opportunity to testify to hundreds of visitors. Ralph’s testimony was firm, unyielding and resolute, much like his devotion to his beloved LaVeta, children and grandchildren.
One of the great joys of his life was being a loving grandfather to his 25 grandchildren and 11 great grandchildren. His magic shows captivated the grandchildren, who often asked, “How did you do that”? The grandchildren never tired of the magic, no matter how many times they had seen it in the past. The magic shows went along on his missions, where Ralph would use magic to entertain children, some of whom did not speak English but were just as captivated as his young grandchildren.
Ralph could play the piano and had a deep, rich bass voice. He loved the songs, “Danny Boy,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and “Old Man River.” During his mission in Nauvoo he performed in the evening shows and would sing, “I’m My Own Grandpa.” He was also part of a mission quartet that sang all over Nauvoo.
Ralph spent the last 18 months of his mortal life at Courtyard at Jamestown in Provo, UT. Hating his loss of freedom due to Covid-19 restrictions, he once escaped out the window and staff later found him on a trail near the center. But this was so “Dad.” We wish to extend our heartfelt gratitude to the staff of Courtyard at Jamestown. They truly loved Dad and will forever hold a very tender place in our hearts.
He is survived by his sisters Sharon Cupit and Linda Perry, his children, Paul Johnson (Debbie), Celeste Kitchen (Gary), David Johnson (Mary Lynn), Jennifer White (Darin), James Johnson (Evelyn) and Cheryl Everett (Brandon), 25 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his wife, LaVeta Johnson, his parents, Ralph and Ethel Johnson, his brother Harry Johnson, and his son, Stephen Nephi Johnson. Due to Covid-19 concerns his life will be celebrated in a small gathering of family members at Nelson Mortuary in Provo, UT on October 24, 2020.