CENTRAL POINT — A cross section of the thousands of lives Leigh Johnson touched in his 75 years gathered to say farewell to the long-time Southern Oregon community leader Sunday afternoon at the Jackson County Expo.
People from varied walks of life — bankers, attorneys, politicians, agency directors, farmers and ranchers, bed-and-breakfast operators, accountants, builders and philanthropists — reflected on Johnson’s life in the Rogue Valley. But his relationships resonated far beyond the region.
“You look around the room, and it’s about as diverse of a group you will ever meet,” said Ken Troutman of People’s Bank of Commerce, where Johnson served as a business development officer. “Everyone is here because they had a personal connection — Lee did something for them that helped them out or impacted their life.”
Pastor Jim Cartwright of Bear Creek Church eulogized Johnson, who died Nov. 17 from complications from several surgeries, as one who passionately represented the towns, region, state and country he served.
“You, here today, and myriads across the Pacific Northwest owe much gratitude for his tireless efforts, creative zeal and deeply embedded love and public service for others,” Cartwright said.
Born in Oakland, California, Johnson, discovered the outdoors and rural living when his family moved to the Northern reaches of the state, where his parents built and operated Bridge Bay Resort on Lake Shasta. After graduating from Central Valley High School in Redding in 1961, Johnson headed north where he attended north to Ashland, attending what is now Southern Oregon University.
He spent the next six decades, however, in Southern Oregon, winning friends and influencing their lives.
“Leigh was always looking out for the betterment of business, great guy, very honest and very dependable,” said Rogue Regency Inn General Manager Bruce Hoevet.
Johnson ran several businesses in Ashland before and after serving two terms in the State Legislature, 1971-74. Later, he served as Congressman Bob Smith’s state director 1983 through 1994. When the congressman retired, Leigh joined the Smith West Co., representing Jeld-Wen, Harry & David, Medford and natural gas interests. Eventually, he worked exclusively with Harry & David and later was named the gourmet food and gift company’s vice president of government relation in 2004.
Retired Jackson County Expo Director Chris Borovansky, who was the emcee for memorial service recalled a time when fair produced the Wild Rogue Pro Rodeo 30 years ago.
Bob Smith was supposed to ride in on horseback during the opening ceremonies, but hurt his back the day before and suggested Johnson could take his place. Although Johnson had ridden before, his appearance made for a memorable evening.
Borovansky lined up national finals rodeo picket man Lloyd Faria’s horse for Johnson, who was dressed up like Roy Rogers.
“He has a microphone, and the horse goes into a trot,” Borovansky said. “Leigh drops the mic, drops the reins, hangs onto the horn, and is coming out of the saddle. We’re all dying laughing, and the horse figures out he’s got someone on his back that knows nothing about riding.”
Johnson said the horse spooked, Borovansky replied: “That horse could make coffee in a thunderstorm. One of your spooked and it wasn’t the horse.”
The next night, however, Johnson was back in the saddle, and pulled off opening without a hitch.
“That was Leigh Johnson,” he said. “He had a sense of human, but he also had a sense that if something needed to be done, he was going to get it done. That summed up Leigh.”
Over the years, he served on more than 50 boards and commissions, including Asante, ACCESS, Jackson County Fair, Boys Scouts, Medford Water Commission and the Chamber of Medford/Jackson County.
Retired Medford Airport Director Bern Case remembers when there was a proposal to put a competing fun center near the airport similar to the one adjacent to the Expo.
“Every now and then something would come up that we could both be interested in,” Case said. “The Expo supported us on everything we wanted to do, so the airport bowed out. Lee was part of that wonderful relationship. He was competitive and a gentleman so we had a wonderful relationship. He lasted through several leaders at the Expo, and he was the glue.”
On July 4, 1993 Leigh and Nancy Brewold were married.
Retiring state Sen. Alan DeBoer, who similarly has irons in many fires cited Johnson’s can-do approach.
“Lee was one of those great people who always had a smile, always had a positive attitude and was so involved in everything in Southern Oregon,” DeBoer said. “We’re surely going to miss him.”