March 20, 1924 - February 12, 2020
Robert Walter Johnson (known as “RW” or “Bob”) passed away peacefully on February 12, 2020 with his four children at his side. He was one month shy of his 96th birthday. With characteristic good humor he would explain to anyone who asked “RW stands for Really Wonderful.” His children could not agree more!
RW was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, during a snowstorm on March 20, 1924. His Swedish immigrant parents, Arvid Johnson (né Jansson) and Ellen (neé Elin Ericksson) Johnson, transported him home on foot and by streetcar, to join an older sister, Nora, and brother, Eric. He spent his childhood exploring wild nature near the Mississippi River, working as an apprentice to the ice delivery man (he delighted in driving the ice truck), and taking a few guitar lessons, which his father suspended when RW did not practice.
RW’s interest in the guitar, however, did not end with the last lesson but fully blossomed while strumming to himself, jamming outside in the shade of a tree with his brother, and on family picnics. Over the years he also taught himself to play the banjo, mandolin, and 12-string guitar. RW was smitten with bluegrass music and for many years spent his annual vacation at the bluegrass festival at Fort Worden in Port Townsend, WA. He was especially proud that he played guitar one year in a trio that won “Best in Show!”
He began his seventy-year career in aviation in 1941 just after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Only 17 years old, RW worked as a mechanic for Northwest Airlines modifying B-24 and B-25 bombers. After 6 months, including the latter 3 months as a crew chief, he was drafted and joined the United States Army Air Corps, ostensibly as an airplane mechanic, but soon thereafter in 1943 he maneuvered his way into training to become a pilot. It was bad timing: all the pilot schools shut down after the Victory in Europe in 1945. Still in the military, RW put his name in for flight engineer training on the B-29. To his frustration, yet ultimate relief, that too came to an end when the war in the Pacific ended a few months later and he returned to being a civilian.
Throughout his life, RW succumbed to the beautiful curves of certain automobiles. For more than 5 years after World War II he worked in a variety of jobs in automobile service garages and began his life as a car collector with the acquisition of three 1936 Fords. But before he could get comfortable in the car business, in 1951 he was drafted a second time, at the start of the Korean Conflict. More about cars later.
RW was sure he did not want to go back into military service alone, so before leaving for his initial two months of flight school, he proposed to his sweetheart, who was just then graduating with a degree in education. Mary Elizabeth Ingersoll became his wife of 25 years and the mother of his four children. The couple was sent to Carswell Air Force Base, Fort Worth, Texas, where RW, in addition to flying as flight engineer on the huge B-36, served for two years as squadron adjutant (First Lieutenant, 98th Bomb Squadron,11th Bomb Wing).
When the Korean Conflict ended, RW and his family returned to civilian life in St. Paul. RW was hired again by Northwest Airlines as a mechanic, but soon moved up to become a flight engineer on the DC-6, DC-7, and Electra after he earned a commercial pilot license and instrument rating in 1960. After a labor dispute in 1961, RW moved his family to Long Beach, NY, and flew for Eastern Airlines on the DC-6, DC-7, Electra, and Lockheed Constellation. After another labor dispute in 1966, he again moved his family, this time to Bellevue, WA, where he worked and traveled the world for the Boeing Company for 17 years as an instructor flight engineer on the Boeing 707, 727, 747, and 767. RW and Mary never regretted leaving snow country and they fully embraced the Pacific Northwest as home. (Their marriage ended in 1976.)
Aware that all flight engineer duties were being automated on Boeing planes, RW left Boeing in 1983 to become an instructor at Alaska Airlines, which still needed three-person crews. He enjoyed working there for the next ten years, where he had the responsibility of training hundreds of flight engineers. He finally retired at age 70.
After Alaska Airlines, RW remained a highly skilled and energetic mechanic, an enthusiastic classic car collector, a bluegrass maven, and was a docent at The Museum of Flight in Seattle for 25 years. He led tours twice a month and was immersed in restoration of the B-29 and Constellation. He loved the Museum and it honored him in 2017 with its exceptional award for donating 10,000 hours of his time as a volunteer.
RW was a self-proclaimed “car guy” and throughout his life he appreciated, albeit lusted over, many gorgeous cars. He was completely unselfconscious about this and could not help but fall in love with classic sports cars for their sculptural and performance attributes. But he could usually only afford them when he discovered their orphaned carcasses in the wrecking yard and brought them home to rebuild. In this way, RW owned Porsches, Ferraris, Lotuses, Jaguars, and a BMW and delighted in every single one. He simply could not get enough of fast European cars!
RW will be sorely missed. His family will always remember his kind and gentle manner, his unfailing sense of humor, the omnipresent bluegrass music and pretty cars, and his fondness for his beautiful home of nearly 50 years. RW took special delight in his grandchildren and great-grandchildren and loved family gatherings. He is survived by his 4 children (Brenda Johnson, Bill Johnson, Dave Johnson, and Deb Allenby), 4 grandchildren (Alison Johnson, Jenny Jaspers, Jonathan Allenby, and Anna Koendarfer), 7 great-grandchildren (Eloine, Emma, and Gabriella Jaspers, Matthew Allenby, Noah Jr, Vincent, and Cara Koendarfer), and 2 beloved nieces (Lucia Smida and Mary Sieloff) and their families.
In the interest of protecting everyone’s health and safety during this Covid-19 era, our family is planning an outdoor inurnment at Tahoma National Cemetery in Kent, WA, on some sunny day in 2021. Remembrances may be posted on the obituary page for Robert W. Johnson at elementalnw.com.