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 on 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.
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 first 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 his passing 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 first wife Edith, a teacher, passed away many years ago. His daughter became a veterinarian, I think. His son, an aerospace engineer who worked on some high profile science projects.
L’uomo Univerale. The DIY Renaissance man. For me, Al Johanson will always be ReallyRedding.
” Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time”
I see an obituary has been posted at the newspaper. I’m going to curate it below. I hope nobody minds.
Alger “Al” Norman Johanson
1923 – 2014
Al passed away on October 5, 2014. He was born in Portland, Oregon on April 17, 1923 to Norman Brian Johanson and Alma Aletta Johanson (nee Hammer).
Al graduated from Chico High School. He entered CSU Chico as an engineering major, but was drafted into the Army for World War II. He served as a medic at Brooke General Hospital in Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio. He married his high school sweetheart, Edith Lively in 1945. In 1947, Al and Edith moved to Redding and started the Redding branch of the Chico-Redding Optical Lab, which became the largest independent lab in the state of California. They had two children, Paul and Lois. During this time, Al was extensively involved in the EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) and Rotary. Al received several commendations, including acknowledgement as a Shan Fellow and a Paul Harris Fellowship. He Rotary service included the Mulege, Mexico dental/optical services project. Al had a passion for flying (he held private, commercial, instrument and Part 135 pilot licenses) and used his own Cessna P210 to transport local health professionals and supplies to Mulege. He personally contributed his expertise honed in the optical lab to fit glasses for villagers. For 25 years, Al managed the Rotary-UC Berkeley International House exchange program that annually brought approximately 30 international students to the Redding area to stay with local families during spring break so they would have an opportunity to learn about American culture and the far north state.
Al built his first house himself, working on it on the weekends and each day after work, and kept up his hands-on approach throughout his life, rebuilding much of the family home when it burned in the mid-1980’s), building boats for water-skiing and his own aircraft, a “Long EZ.” The EAA was especially important to Al; he was Past President of the EAA, Chapter 157, and he spent a portion of many days at Benton Airport with his flying buddies, most of whom he outlived. He served on the board of the Mercy Air Ambulance. Each year, Al and Edith flew to the national EAA “fly-in” in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
Al loved anything that burned a LOT of gas and went fast. He said if he had a dollar for every gallon of gas he had burned, he would be a millionaire. Edith and Al were happily married for 43 years until Edith passed away. Al sold his optical lab and retired during Edith’s illness so he could nurse her. After retirement, Al joined a coffee group which met every weekday morning at the Sandwichery and was a regular until about 7 years ago.
Two years after Edith passed, Al found happiness again with Isabella “Izzy” Talley. Together, they had a wonderful time travelling to Egypt, Norway (to see Al’s ancestral “home”), the Panama Canal, New England, and up and down California. They especially enjoyed taking long drives around the north state to see the beautiful surroundings. Al and Izzy were married for 25 years, the last ten of which were touched by Al’s slow decline due to dementia and Parkinson’s. Throughout life, Al did a lot for other people; often no one else except the recipient knew what Al had done. As he was always the helper, it was particularly difficult for him to receive help. Izzy was a devoted caretaker, but when caring for Al became too much, she shared responsibility with the staff at A Brand New Day, who grew to love Al for his mischievous and stubborn self. It was difficult to determine how bad the dementia had gotten as Al was never a big talker (being more of a “do-er”) and had several stock phrases that he used for most conversations. “How are you, Al?” “Terrible!” (followed by a quick grin). Even when he had lost his ability to talk, there were times you could still see Al in the twinkle of his eyes.
St. James Lutheran Church was an integral part of his life. He was involved in founding the church in Redding which just celebrated its 65th anniversary and was a lifelong member, serving on the council and supporting the church leadership.
Al is preceded in death by his parents, his first wife (Edith), and his three brothers (Harold, Art and George).
He is survived by his second wife (Izzy), his son Paul (Diane), his daughter Lois (Steve Hild), and three grandchildren (Brian and Brandon Johanson, Julia Hild). He is also survived by his six stepchildren (Sam Lewis, Izzy Lewis, Russ Lewis, Rebecca Hinrichsen, Margaret Arthofer, and Buffy Tanner), their spouses (Phil Park, Sumudu Lewis, Henry Hinrichsen and Dave Tanner) and eight step-grandchildren (Tanya and Christina Lewis; Lauren, Sidney and Grayson Arthofer; Hannah and Rachel Hinrichsen; and Lily Tanner).
The family would like to recognize and thank the wonderful staff at A Brand New Day for their care and love of Al, as well as Mercy Hospice for ensuring Al’s passing was peaceful and pain free.
The family will hold a private remembrance of Al’s life.
In lieu of flowers, please consider donating to the St. James Lutheran Church Memorial Fund.
Call (530) 221-6474 for more information.