Don’t fence me in
Hyrum Bennett Johnson was born on February 20, 1934 to Austin and Hattie Bennett Johnson. He was born in a little green house in Holden, a town in central Utah. He was the sixth child, with two older brothers and three older sisters, and later one younger sister followed. My father had an unshakeable love and faith in his first home and community, and spoke of it often, very often. He attended school through the eighth grade in Holden, then he and the six other students in his grade from town rode a bus to Fillmore High School about 10 miles away. Hyrum said, of that group of kids, “We always felt like we were the best there was. We could beat anybody in a race or football or baseball or something, we thought. We really couldn’t, but we figured we could. If we couldn’t, our friends would be able to.” Hyrum was a small kid, only 131 pounds his senior year, but he did play on the football team — a little. His real athletic interest, though, was wrestling, and he was good at that. He mentioned from time to time, with a little wistfulness, that he had to miss the state wrestling meet his sophomore year because he got chicken pox.
Hyrum’s father farmed land outside of town and gathered up the town’s milk to go to the creamery to make cheese. Hyrum’s childhood was spent in farm work, hunting, and horses. He always loved his horses and gentled them using kind methods. He was the youngest boy in the family, and was small, so he was always extra proud to be able to help like his older brothers. He reiterated to me recently the story of his first solo ride to the family’s hay ground. He was too young to be allowed to go out to cut hay with his father and brothers, but he was sure not happy about being left behind. He badgered his mother until she finally consented to allow him to take some food out to the older boys and men. He told how carefully he memorized the way (first through this gate, then across that person’s land, then through this number of gates) and how worriedly his mother quizzed him about the directions. Then he rode off on his horse with the cans of pork and beans and some cheese, only to discover when he arrived that he had inadvertently grabbed cans of beets from the shelf instead of the pork and beans he had intended. So they all had to eat just beets and cheese for two or three days while the mowing was finished up.
When Hyrum was eleven years old, his mother died, so he missed her guidance in his adolescence and adulthood. Perhaps it will make some of you smile to think that their separation is over. His father struggled through, I suppose, a single father of seven, and his older sisters Theone and LouJean and an older cousin, Chloe, helped raise my father and the other younger children.
Not sure what to do as his high school years came to an end, he decided to attend college in the southern Utah town of Cedar City, where he completed one year of Air Force ROTC. He returned in the summer to Holden to assist at the farm, and picked up other odd jobs to earn the money for tuition, but then he began to plan on a mission, and he went to Salt Lake City to work at the stockyards to earn money for that. After about a year of working, he received his call to Hawaii. I have to say, my father was not a complaining man, but he especially never complained about getting sent to such a place as Hawaii for his two-year mission. He went to Hawaii in 1954 and returned in 1956. He worked on the islands of Oahu and Maui and Lanai. He remembered Lanai the mostly fondly, I think, as he lived and worked there for a year, and even served as a branch president there when theirs passed away without any local replacement.
When he returned to Utah, he transferred to Brigham Young University in Provo. He completed another year of ROTC here, but then switched to the Army Reserve as a combat engineer. His older brother Leslie was killed in the Korean War, and his other brother Rowland, was a veteran of Korea also, so even though that conflict was winding down, war and the military were serious business to Hyrum. He was blessed to never be deployed to a conflict.
It was while in Hawaii that Hyrum started to think about youth leadership, and scouting in particular. When he first arrived at BYU, he thought he would study Youth Leadership, but then he took a Botany class as one of his general education requirements and sort of fell in love with that. He switched to Botany and pretty much stuck with it. After that most of his jobs were at least tangentially related to biology, like being a fireguard for the BLM in central Utah (over six and a half million acres, if you can imagine that), or working at the Great Basin Experiment Station in the mountains above Ephraim. He finished his Bachelors in 1960, then started a Master program in Provo, then figured why not just get a Ph.D. too? This Utah farm boy then went off to Columbia University in New York City in 1962, but not without having first met his future wife in Provo. Margaret helped him type his thesis, though it didn’t get done before he left for New York. My father travelled to Chicago, where my mother had moved, and asked my mother to marry him, and they were married in June of 1963. Their first years together were in the Bronx in a fifth floor walkup, where, Hyrum said “There were probably almost as many people that lived in that apartment house as lived in the town I grew up in… but I always felt like I needed to be a country boy and on one of the trips out west, I got a sprig of sage brush that I kept up in the top of the cupboard. I could get that sprig of sagebrush and smell it when I needed to. I always kept a dish up there with at least 50 cents in it because you needed at least 50 cents to go across the George Washington Bridge to get off of Manhattan Island.”
In those years Edward, the first of several children, was born. Then when school was finally finished and they had a two-year stint in St. Louis for a post doctoral assignment, their second child, Suzanne, was born. They moved west after that, to Riverside, California, where their remaining three children, David, Katherine, and Christopher were born.
Hyrum taught and researched at the University of California-Riverside, then went back to the BLM, this time as an ecologist on a task force concerned with making a management plan for the California desert. In 1980, Hyrum was hired to do research here in Temple with the Agricultural Research Service at the Blacklands Soil and Water Research Laboratory, where he studied several topics, but the most important one these last years was plant responses to varying CO2 levels. Hyrum retired officially in 2007, but I have to point out that on December 3 last month, which was the day before he went to the hospital this last time, he was at the experiment station. He loved — really, really loved — his work. When he was home, his table was invariably covered with journal articles and folders and notepads, and in later years, his laptop.
He took his family on many road trips; he preferred taking all the little winding roads out in the countryside, and could be counted on to point out unusual plants as we passed, occasionally insisting on stopping to collect samples.
We all seem remember going to sand dunes all over the West, and I remember his preference for unpopulated places was so strong that when we visited Southern California once, and I begged to go to the beach, he managed to select the one chilly, windswept beach in that entire half of the state, probably, that had not a soul on it.
In between the family time and the work time was the Boy Scout time and the Church time. Hyrum was an extremely devoted scout leader. At last count, he served in various capacities in the Boy Scouts of America, from scoutmaster to Young Men’s President to council offices, for over fifty years, so as you might expect he has impacted many young men. I heard him on many occasions expressing worry, or approval, or excited admiration over some success for the Scouts who were in his care. My brother Dave recalled a big backpacking trip for his Scouts some years ago to Big Bend National Park in west Texas. A day or so into the hike, one of the boys’ backpacks started to fall apart, which is a pretty big problem. Hyrum must have taken the Boy Scout motto (“Be Prepared”) seriously, because he produced a set of backpack clips, fixed the backpack, and they all went on. Now, considering the fact that most people haven’t even heard of backpack clips, that was pretty amazing. Many of his callings at church were closely related to his love of scouting, as the leader of Youth programs. And if the raising of five children and the pseudo-parenting of many more wasn’t enough, about the time his youngest child left home, he was asked to be the bishop of his ward, where he served for seven years. He spent hours in the ministry of his Ward, and he loved the people here. Many friends have mentioned the peaceful, calm feeling they enjoyed when he was with them. He just had that somewhere inside him, and it was a blessing for those near him. My father would give anyone a chance, even people you might think had had enough chances already. He could see the potential in people, I think.
Almost five years ago, Hyrum suddenly fell ill. Those who know him saw how quickly he aged, but marveled at how determinedly he returned to the things he loved in his life. Once he was able to get around again, he continued to go to work, he started to travel more to visit family, and he was difficult to slow down. I remember protesting many times as he lifted my children up in big bear hugs, and I also remember trying to stop him from pruning back some brush this past spring as we were trying to drive through a rough patch of ground (I did manage to get the pruners away from him, but I couldn’t really stop him — he just kept kicking the stump). He struggled with pain and loss of physical ability, but his love of life, or stubbornness maybe, won out for him for these past few years.
Starting about a month ago, stubbornness wasn’t enough anymore. Hyrum slipped away late Sunday evening, January 3, 2010, surrounded by his wife and all his children (one present via phone). In addition to his wife, children, and eleven grandchildren, he is also survived by his sisters Ada and Helen. He is preceded in death by his parents, his two brothers, and two of his sisters. He is already missed. Please, hold a place for us, Dad.