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ANN CONWAY

Jazzy Farewell for United Way Chief

February 01, 1996|ANN CONWAY

Four hundred well-wishers crowded the ballroom of the Westin South Coast Plaza on Monday to pay tribute to United Way of Orange County President Merritt L. Johnson, who is retiring after 26 years of service.

Through his efforts, 16 chapters of United Way in Orange County were merged into a single unit. And since 1975, the fruits of the organization's fund-raising efforts have increased from $3 million to nearly $20 million.

Johnson's tribute committee knew its honoree was a jazz fan. So, during a dinner of salmon, veggies and roasted potatoes, music by ESP kept guests tapping their feet.

When it came time to roast Johnson, his friends were kind. They likened his leadership qualities to a jazz band.

"Jazz bands walk that line between sophistication and cool," noted United Way Chairman Fred Mickelson as ESP struck up Dave Brubeck's "Take Five."

"The piano is the diplomat of jazz . . . reining in the rest of the instruments," said Mickelson. "Thanks to you for being our diplomat, for building the bridges that have reached all of us. Merritt Johnson, you're our hero."

Jo Caines, an executive with KOCE-TV, took the stage to salute Johnson's "saxophone-like" qualities: "If pianos are the diplomat, the saxophone is the heart, the emotions, the compassion--the rich, gooey, frosting on this man's cake," Caines said.

Bruce Hird, who once worked with Johnson at United Way, spoke of the latter's power to address issues. Like a drummer, Johnson "created the rhythm that helped us identify what the issues were," Hird said.

Johnson's children--Carolyn and Chris--compared their father to the bass. "The bass is the timekeeper," said Carolyn.

Added Chris: "The instrument that shares the spotlight with the rest of the combo."

"I can't tell you how overwhelmed I am--all of you being here tonight," Johnson told the crowd, which included his wife, Jeanne, and his mother, Esther Sparks, 90, of San Jose.

"At a board retreat a few years ago, people were asked the question, 'How would you like to be remembered?' " Johnson said. "When it came around to me, I said I wanted to be remembered as a great lover." The crowd laughed. "The reaction was even louder then," he said, laughing himself. "Then I went on to say--a lover of my wife, Jeanne . . . my children. My mother is the one who taught me compassion. And I thank you so much, Mom."

*

Taco Bell Classic: Taco Bell Chairman John Martin announced company plans to renew its sponsorship of the Newport Classic pro-am golf tournament during last week's Tee-It-Up-Fore-Hoag gala at the Hyatt Regency Irvine. Taco Bell has sponsored the tourney, which benefits Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach, since 1992.

"By sponsoring the Newport Classic over the next three years, we'd like to surpass our past fund-raising and enhance Hoag's reputation as one of the nation's leading centers of health-care excellence," he said.

Proceeds of $225,000 from Friday's tournament and gala will be used for renovation of the hospital's operating rooms. Hank Adler was chairman.

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