I recently read that Alger “Al” Johanson has passed away at 91. He gave me my first full time job in Redding in 1974, and became something of a pivotal figure for me as a young man. I see currently, services are pending. I’m sure at age 91, most of his contemporaries have passed away as well. I feel compelled to write something about him here.
Al and his partner Owen Jones ran Redding Optical Lab on Gold Street. I worked there 7 years as a lens maker, and eyeglass fabricator. At the time, Redding Optical Lab was the longest operating lab of its kind in California. We made prescription eyewear for most everyone in Redding who needed to wear glasses. Technology and market changes rendered the business mostly obsolete, and it closed not long after I left for another tech job. The building on Gold Street is now a blood lab.
Me between a couple co-workers at Redding Optical Lab, grinding lenses in the late 70’s.
Al and his wife Edith lived in Sunset Terrace. Very active in Rotary. He was a truly rare and unique individual. He loved to waterski. So he built his own custom V8 powered ski boat. He loved photography, so he had his own darkroom setup. He loved to fly, so he built his own airplane in his basement, and flew it out of Benton Airfield.
Not just any airplane. It was a canard design built from composite material. A design called a Long Easy designed by Burt Rutan. This was very much cutting edge technology at the time. Even now Rutan’s designs are legendary, and include the current Virgin Galactic spacecraft.
Al introduced me to the first personal computer I ever saw. Perhaps the fist one in Redding. It looked to me something like an erector set and used cassette tape for memory storage. I was fascinated! A computer in your house seemed like science fiction. Of course there were no “apps” or even programs. You had to program it yourself using a language called BASIC. Al had written some code to calculate lens design, something we had been doing by hand at the lab. Automation in the 70’s.
Back in those days, I played keyboards in a garage band called Headwind. Al let our band use the upstairs section of the building on Gold Street for free practice space at night. What a leap of faith (and risk)! Our band went nowhere ultimately, but I will be forever grateful for his charity to our artistic cause.
At the time, he just seemed to me like an ordinary Redding guy. My boss. The fullness of time has given me greater perspective to appreciate just how rare and special an individual Al was to have met. Like some Northstate Da Vinci. You want a plane? Build it. You want a computer? Learn to code. These ideas informed my early adulthood, and that mentality has shaped my life too. I bought what may have been the first Apple II computer in Redding because of Al. And with that I began a lifetime of curiosity, technical learning, and a DIY ethic that I carry with me today.
So he lived to be 91, and passed a few days ago on October 7. I haven’t seen him in years. But seeing his obituary triggered a flood of interesting memories for me. I went looking for a photo of him to share, but find none. Odd, since I take a lot of photographs. And so this post ended up being more about me than him. There are a few things I recall of his family, although memory falters after 30+ years. His wife Edith, a teacher, passed away years ago. His daughter became a veterinarian. His son, an aerospace engineer who I believe worked on the Galileo Mission to Jupiter, which was a pretty spectacular success.
L’uomo Univerale. The DIY Renaissance man. For me, Al Johanson will always be ReallyRedding.