John LeRoy Johnsen
October 10, 1933 – July 3, 2013
John LeRoy Johnsen
Born October 10, 1933 to John and Ruth Johnsen in Fresno, John Johnsen wore a steady progression of seven uniforms before donning the gray of the United States Military Academy at West Point. There were the Cub Scout, Boy Scout and Sea Scout uniforms, and that of the California Cadet Corps where he was the top cadet Lieutenant Colonel his senior year at Roosevelt High School. John placed second in the Fresno area manual of arms competition his junior year and first place in his senior year while at the same time wearing the uniform of the US Marine Corps Reserve where he taught the manual of arms to wizened veterans. The commanding officer of his unit managed to discharge him when the unit was called up for the Korean War due to John being underage. Upon graduation from high school, John, with relative rank of second lieutenant in the California National Guard, was simultaneously a private in the Air Force ROTC program at Fresno State College.
Entering West Point with the class of 1956, John enjoyed playing handball and running track while singing in the Cadet Chapel Choir. In the 1955 Beast Barracks John again was on the podium teaching the manual of arms. The day following his graduation as a cadet lieutenant, the new Armor officer married Mary Helene Pigott of Northford, CT on June 6th, 1956 and the two set off on his twenty year career as an officer in the U.S. Army.
Highlights of that career included being in armor (tank and airborne) units in Germany for almost seven years, earning an honor graduate jump master trophy, and taking two forays to Vietnam. John earned a master’s degree at Stephens Institute of Technology in Terrain Vehicle Mechanics, represented the US at NATO conferences at Brussels when at the Pentagon Office of the Chief of Research and Development, and commanded the 1st Battalion 70th Armor, 4thInfantry Division at Fort Carson, Colorado.
John loved being with troops, so when faced with the prospect of the War College or the Pentagon again, he decided to retire in 1976 as a Lieutenant Colonel. He then did research at the Oregon Graduate Center where he earned a doctorate in Materials Science and Engineering followed by a professorship in mechanical engineering at the University of Portland. Back working with the age group that he loved, John was happy teaching Thermodynamics, Materials Science and Fracture Mechanics.
John and Mary’s four sons kept them busy along the way. James, born in Augsberg, Germany in 1957, has a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania and lives in Fairbanks, Alaska; John born in Heidelberg in 1958, died in 1984 in an accident at El Toro Naval Air Station when a Lance Corporal, USMC; David was born at Fort Knox, KY in 1961 and now lives in Oregon where he represents a German manufacturing company; and Erik, born in New Mexico in 1964, graduated from USAFA ’87, flew for the USAF for twenty years and now is an American Airlines pilot. These men have served as John’s best friends through the years. John was also proud of his two grandchildren born to Jim and his Mary, Greta an NPR journalist and Jakob, USMA ’09, Special Assistant for military and veteran’s affairs to the Adjutant General of the state of Alaska.
Throughout John’s careers, his troops, officers and non-commissioned officers, students, wife, sons, and extended family recognized his unabridged honesty, his passion for truth and his respect for others. His West Point classmates also noted he set very high standards with his inspirational leadership skills.
After the first twenty plus years of his life in Fresno and USMA, then twenty in the Army, and the third in academia, John returned for the last sixteen to Downieville, CA. Here he played drums in a band, climbed mountain trails with his golden retrievers and caught up reading in the Books for the Blind the history and philosophy books he had not had time for earlier. He also wrote some 250 limericks and enjoyed the company of good friends. Mary and his sons will always remember him for his terrific sense of humor, as a good and loving man, and a fine gentleman leader and citizen.
The plan is for Colonel Johnsen to be featured in the Downieville Veteran’s Day ceremony at the bell tower on the 11th of November. Upon Mary’s death, John’s cremains will join hers for burial beside their son John in Portland, OR. Should anyone wish, donations may be made in his name to the Downieville Tennis and Education Association, 95936-0518 or a charity of their choice.
Mary P. Johnsen and sons Jim, David and Erik