H. Richard Johnson was a teacher for more than 40 years, but whenever his birthday rolled around and students asked his age, Johnson always replied, "I'm 29."
Even as his eyesight failed in recent years, leaving him nearly blind, the English teacher at San Fernando High School gave the same reply. And in many ways, the reply made sense. As Alex Padilla, student body president, put it Friday, "His heart--his mind--would always say, 'I'm 29.' "
Padilla was one of several hundred students, teachers, friends and family members who gathered on the campus Friday to celebrate the life of Johnson, who suffered a fatal heart attack last September while giving an orientation program for sophomores in the school library. He was 67.
He literally died doing what he liked best, friends said. "He died with his boots on," said Yolanda Tarango, assistant principal.
With speeches, poetry and songs, Johnson's students and colleagues described how his energy, dedication and good humor inspired both students and teachers to excel. The language building, where Johnson put in many extra hours after class to counsel and tutor students, was renamed in his honor.
"We have come together to pay tribute to an outstanding human being who dedicated his life to teaching," Jerry Spitz, a reading teacher, told the crowd. Many held balloons stamped with "29."
A portrait of Johnson painted by Hector Garcia, one of his former students now working as a security guard on campus, will be displayed in Johnson Hall.
A cheery man with an owlish face, he was known as "Mr. J" on campus. Among his trademarks was a silly wig he wore without fail every Halloween. His fondness for jelly doughnuts was well-known, and Julie Padilla, a former student, recalled how he would giggle as he licked raspberry filling from the corners of his lips.
Johnson began teaching in Minnesota in 1946 and began his career at San Fernando High School in 1958. Except for a three-year stint at Sylmar High in the 1960s, he always taught at San Fernando, and students repeatedly voted him teacher of the year.
He could have retired at 65, Spitz said, but he couldn't leave his students. Friends urged him to slow down as his health failed. Johnson happily ignored them. He also kept eating jelly doughnuts.
Some students and teachers wiped away tears during the 45-minute ceremony. Dorothy Madson, an English teacher, read a poem for her colleague. Her voice slightly cracked as she said, "He was my best friend."
During brief remarks, school board member Roberta Weintraub said she didn't find it unusual that Johnson had declined to retire at 65. "I don't think 67 is too old," she said.
Olga Rojero, a junior, knew better. Under her breath, she gently corrected Weintraub. "He was 29."