Harry's Gang: A gentleman of many talents
January 14, 2022
Strangely, in my career, I’ve made a lot of friends just by suing them. It sounds odd, doesn’t it? But it’s true. Usually, it would seem, lawsuits more often end up making enemies out of friends. But it doesn’t have to be that way, especially if both sides are respectful and treat each other like gentlemen.
That’s how, not long after I moved to town, I became friends with Cloquet’s No. 1 Gentleman, David Johnson, who passed away this week. I was working for the Newby law firm and was assigned a contractor dispute, which ended up going to trial. It was a complicated matter and somewhat intense, and I’m sure Dave wasn’t pleased to be subjected to a three-day jury trial. But after the trial was over he graciously walked over to me and, wearing his famous smile and exuding real charm, shook my hand and said, “Well done, Peter.”
It was a classy move that I’ve never forgotten. Even though my side won the case, we both played fair and focused on the issues. And after the decision was made, we moved on. He taught me a valuable lesson that I still apply today: You don’t use lawsuits to hurt someone; you use them to settle disputes. His lesson helped my career as a litigator immensely.
He called me “Peter” ever since — something I think only he and my mother did (I’m “Pete” to everyone else). Shopping at Super One? I’d hear, “Well, Peter,” in that rich baritone, and I’d just know I was in for a good conversation. After he passed away, that was one of the comments I heard most about Dave Johnson — he was a great guy to talk to.
I had him on “Harry’s Gang” quite often in the old days, not only because he made the show look better, but also because he was smart and had plenty of opinions about the community, and he always delivered. It was obvious that he cared. Whether it was the direction of commercial development, or the rate of property taxes in the county, or how the parks should be developed, Dave was always willing to discuss the issue. And, unlike many panelists, he was willing to listen too and consider your viewpoint. Occasionally, he would even change his mind, if I was convincing enough.
A couple of years ago Tara and I attended a fundraiser party at the Birmans’ house, where Dave met my wife for the first time. After chatting a bit, I excused myself to mingle with the other guests, but every time I circled back to check on my wife, she was in deep conversation with Dave. They spent the whole evening tucked away in a corner, talking. I was pleased they hit it off, and although he’s 30 years older than her (and Rosa was just a few feet away the whole time) I was a little jealous too. They had had numerous conversations since then. When we learned Dave passed away, Tara was saddened — she said, “He could really keep up — I’m going to miss him.” I will, too.
He was also a champion of charity events. I bought a lot of tickets to dinners I never ate, all because Dave would say, “Well, if you can’t attend, let’s call it a donation.” And he rarely let us tight-fisted friends weasel out of buying a ticket or two. Back when the Kiwanis held their annual smelt dinner, I would tell him it was the one night a year I ate nothing but potato chips and coleslaw for dinner. He charged me full price anyway.
I once found out from his daughter Vivi that he had perfect pitch, and had this weird ability to actually whistle chords — yes, two notes at the same time. So I made him prove it. Sure enough, he puckered up, twisted his neck a little, and whistled two notes at the same time. It was a neat trick I had never seen before, nor since. But Dave Johnson could do it.
In the early part of the century, I married my wife and moved her to Cloquet from Washington, D.C. I used to tease Dave that he, his good friend Barry Bergquist, and I all had just one thing in common, despite our great political differences — we each convinced beautiful, sophisticated women to leave their upscale, cosmopolitan lifestyles to live in the city we called home: Cloquet. Between that, and the fact we were both Eagle Scouts, and for maybe a few other reasons I don’t quite understand, I developed quite a bond with him.
Nobody can replace Dave Johnson as a husband, father, or friend, but our community will be a much better place if someone is willing to step into his shoes as a historian, organizer, leader and champion for our community.