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In Memoriam: Joseph R. Johnson

In Memoriam: Joseph R. Johnson

Oct 24, 1954 - May 21, 2012

by Deb Olsen

Originally published in American Lutherie #111, 2012

We were very sad to hear of the passing of our friend Joe Johnson after an extended illness. It’s been some years since we’ve seen Joe, but we haven’t forgotten the great work he did for the Guild in the 1980s and 1990s. Members who have been around awhile will remember that Joe was the genial and energetic host of our 1988 and 1992 GAL Conventions in Vermillion, South Dakota.

Photo by Robert Desmond

When we first met Joe, he was living in Vermillion and working as the first Curator of Education at the Shrine to Music Museum (now the National Music Museum) at the University of South Dakota. Joe joined the Guild in 1986 and made the suggestion that we might want to have our 1988 convention in Vermillion in conjunction with the museum. That was a pretty wild idea, but Tim went out to visit and saw what an incredible gem was hidden in the farmlands of South Dakota! It soon became apparent that not only was the museum a great treasure-trove for our members, but that we had found a great helper and GAL supporter in Joe Johnson. Joe made all the on-site arrangements and was there to do whatever needed to be done and whatever would make a better experience for the members. This included forgoing dinner to give after-hours museum tours, shuttling folks to and from the airport, and many other details in the extreme South Dakota temperatures, always wearing a tie and a smile. Whenever a problem needed to be solved, he enthusiastically arose to the challenge. (He had served in the Navy, and this showed in his ability to get things done and get along with folks.)

After experiencing the crazy fun of helping to organize a GAL Convention, Joe came to Tacoma to help out in 1990 and did many of the interviews with exhibitors that year. (You can experience Joe’s enthusiasm on our Luthier’s Show and Tell DVD). Things had gone so well at our 1988 convention in South Dakota (with Joe’s help), that we decided to go out to Vermillion again in 1992. That year we added a joint meeting with the Catgut Acoustical Society. Thanks to Joe, both these conventions were great successes. For our 1995 convention, Joe came out to Tacoma again especially to curate the special exhibit of D’Aquisto and D’Angelico archtop guitars from the collection of Paul Gudelsky. His expertise as a curator greatly enhanced this project. The photo above was taken at that convention.

After eleven years at the Shrine to Music Museum, Joe got a new position as the founding Curator of Music and Popular Culture at the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in Macon, Georgia. This was in his words, a “fun job” where he went around collecting artifacts from some of the great musicians who hailed from Georgia. Every once in a while we’d get an e-mail from Joe telling us about some amazing experience he had hanging out with musical icons like Little Richard, Chet Atkins, or the B-52s. We really enjoyed hearing about his trips, and it sounded like the right job for positive guy like Joe.

Joe was a family man and he is survived by his wife of thirty-five years, Lois, their three children, and four grandchildren. He was also a very religious man. He wasn’t afraid to express his deep Christian faith, and he lived it in the best possible way: always positive, service oriented, free of prejudice, and loving toward his fellow human beings. Joe was a musician who loved people, music, history, and musical instruments, and he will be missed.