Flagpole and memorial dedicated in memory of Pete Johnson
By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX —Don Knutson, director of the Colfax Rescue Squad, thought the Fourth of July would be an appropriate day to dedicate the new flagpole given in memory of Pete Johnson.
Johnson’s family said they would rather hold the dedication ceremony July 3 — on Pete Johnson’s 64th birthday.
And so it was.
Friends, family members, community members and EMTs gathered July 3 in front of the Colfax Rescue Squad Building on Railroad Avenue to dedicate the flag pole and a memorial given by Glen “Pete” Johnson’s family.
Johnson served as an EMT on the Colfax Rescue Squad from 1984 until 1996 and also served as president of the rescue squad for several years. He volunteered as a firefighter for the Colfax Fire Department as well.
Pete Johnson died in a traffic accident in Minneapolis in August of 2011.
“When I was doing research for today, I was looking for a way to tie flagpoles to Pete,” Knutson said.
Wisconsin has 18,632 emergency hospital personnel, first responders, EMTs and paramedics. In 2011 they responded to 633,798 EMS calls, he said.
“That’s a lot of people that need help. Of those 18,000 professionals, 70 percent are volunteers or are part-time. It is encouraging that volunteerism is alive and well in Wisconsin. A volunteer is defined as a person who voluntarily undertakes or expresses willingness to undertake service with no expectations of reward. That defines Pete,” Knutson said.
Johnson also volunteered for the military after he graduated from Colfax High School and then served in Vietnam.
“He volunteered for the military at a time that volunteering for the war was not popular. He left his wife and soon-to-be baby at home. He fought courageously in Vietnam, forever leaving a mark on him. He came back to his community and volunteered again, this time for the fire department, leaving his wife and family and a lot of meals uneaten or cold to help strangers, any time of the night, any time of the day,” Knutson said.
“But it wasn’t enough. A few years later, he volunteered for the Colfax Rescue Squad, again leaving his family at nights, at meals, at school activities. He did it with no expectations except to help his friends and neighbors. That takes a special person,” Knutson said.
The American flag that was raised July 3 in memory of Pete Johnson was a flag that had flown over the White House.
“When you look at the American flag and see the stars and stripes, it should remind you of all of the people who died for this country. They are all heroes. Dedicating a flag to Pete reminds you of heroes — and he was a hero. A hero is a person who shows great courage or a person admired for achievements and qualities. I believe anyone who volunteers for the fire department or the ambulance or the military service is a hero. They are giving of themselves with no expectations of getting anything in return. Pete was a hero,” Knutson said.
“I don’t know how many lives were saved because of Pete Johnson, car accidents, CPR, fires, the foxholes of Vietnam. I am positive he saved countless lives. Every time you look at that flag flying, as it waves in the sky, I want you to think of Pete looking down on his family and community, making sure we are safe tonight, tomorrow, and the next day,” he said.
Acts of kindness
Pete Johnson was born July 3, 1949, a few blocks from the rescue squad building at the Stovern Maternity Home, said Sally Johnson, Pete’s wife.
“It was always important for Pete to help people. That’s who he was. That’s what he was. If his customers called and needed a water line dug, but they didn’t have the money, he’d say, ‘don’t worry about it,’” she said.
Pete Johnson owned and operated an excavating business.
“(Pete) enlisted in the army as a senior in high school, knowing full well he would end up in Vietnam. Never once did he tell me it was awful there, it was always, ‘I’m getting by. Don’t cry. I’ll be okay.’ The reason he did that, he knew it was his civic duty. He knew he owed it to his country. He joined the fire department and the rescue squad. He was a leader in (Boy Scout) Troop 42,” she said.
“There are some things you don’t think about as you go along. (I was reminded) of this at Pete’s visitation. There was a local farmer who had lost his son in a farming accident. Pete wanted to do something to help, but what do you do? Every night after work he would stop at the farm. If he got there in time, he would help milk cows or do other chores. If he didn’t, he would sit there and talk. Then he’d come home and hug his wife and kids and say, ‘thank God, I have you.’ The next day, he’d go back to visit,” Sally Johnson said.
“One day he noticed a tree sitting in a pot in the front yard. He said to the farmer, ‘We could plant that tree. Don’t you think we should plant it?’ And the farmer would say, ‘No, not today.’ And Pete said, ‘Whenever you’re ready, I’ll be ready.’ And every day it was the same thing, ‘No, not today. Not tonight,’” she said.
“One night Pete was headed home. He always stopped with his equipment. One night, the backhoe and truck and trailer came back. He’d only been gone ten minutes. And the farmer said, ‘It was Pete. And I thought, what’s going on, because he was already here …’ But that night it was storming, and Pete saw a rainbow. And he went back and said, ‘It’s time. Tonight’s the time we need to plant the tree. It’s a sign from God and your son. Today is the day. We need to plant the tree.’ So they dug a hole and planted the tree.’ The farmer told me at Pete’s visitation, ‘I still see that hole where’s he digging it and the rainbow coming through. And I see the branch and the tree and the rainbow. And I thank Pete for that day,’” Sally Johnson recalled.
“I don’t think Pete set out to do good. That was just his way. The way he was made. He cared more for others than he did for himself,” she said.
Sally Johnson also received a card after Pete died from a person who was a client of Pete’s.
“I do not know her, only as a client, but here is what she wrote,” she said.
“Dear Sally, I met your husband about 12 years ago when we were doing some excavating on our farm for a shed we were building. On the site where he was moving the dirt had once been, many years ago, an old farmhouse and barn. Throughout the years, bits of glass or unbroken bottles showed up. Jokingly I told Pete not to run over any of the bottles he might dig up. When I got home from work that night, there were two unbroken bottles on my steps. I was so surprised. Pete must have stopped the bulldozer and retrieved the bottles for me. If not once, two times. I was so impressed by that little act of kindness. Four years ago, an 82-year-old woman who once lived in the farmhouse came to the area to see what it looked like and how it was different from her childhood. Right before she left, I gave her the two bottles Pete had retrieved. She smiled when she recognized a perfume bottle and a cough syrup bottle from when she was a little girl. He was a kind man, and I know you and your family miss him dearly.”
In addition to the flag that was raised, a memorial to Pete Johnson also was dedicated on July 3.
Scott Harrison (a firefighter from Elk Mound) and the owner of Greater Northland LLC (Boulder Design) designed the memorial that reads, “This Flagpole is in Memory of Glen ‘Pete’ Johnson, Dedicated to His Community.” The memorial stone includes the symbols for the fire department and EMS services.