Lee Ward Johnson, Willison community leader, dies at age 52

By Tim Simard
Observer staff

One of Williston's favorite sons, a farmer, a carpenter, a community leader and a family man, died last week after a long battle with cancer. Lee Ward Johnson passed away at his second home in Port Richey, Fla. on Jan. 18. He was 52 years old. His wife, Joan Bessette Johnson, was at his side.

Johnson was a longtime fixture in the community, said his wife. He gave back to his town in many ways. He served on the Planning Commission, was a Justice of the Peace and served as Cemetery Commissioner for a time. His years of service to Williston earned him a Vermont Public Service award from the State of Vermont in October 2000.

"He loved Williston," said Bessette Johnson. "He loved working in the town and being around his family."

Johnson's brother-in-law and close family friend, Denny Lewis, said Johnson "cherished" his friends and family and took care of this neighbors and members of the farming community.

"He liked to check in on his neighbors and see how they were doing," said Lewis. "He'll certainly be missed by them and the farmers in the area."

Johnson was born in Colchester on Feb. 18, 1955. He was the oldest son of the late Mona Johnson and J. Ward Johnson, former owners of the Johnson Farm in Williston village. He graduated from Champlain Valley Union High School in 1973.

Bessette Johnson said that her husband loved being outside, whether it was working on the farm growing up or walking the warm beaches of Florida. He also enjoyed the hard work he put in as a citizen of Williston, something he learned from his civic-minded father.

"He had the same qualities as his dad," said friend and Planning Commission Chairman David Yandell, who went to high school with Johnson. "He was a great, great guy. A very fun-loving person. He lived it to the max."

Family friend Herb Goodrich, a good friend of Johnson's father, remembered the man for his wonderful carpentry skills.

"In fact, he built my garage," said Goodrich. "He was a good carpenter, you can't take that away from a man."

Bessette Johnson also attested to her husband's carpentry skills. In 2000, he built their dream house, which Bessette Johnson told the Observer she designed.

"He was a true craftsman," said Lewis. "He was very well known for that. He was very, very creative."

By all accounts, Johnson had a wonderful sense of humor, with a penchant for pulling the occasional practical joke. His wife recalled a time when a young Johnson pulled a fast one on a couple of town workers outside the family's farm. It was a summer day and the workers were driving through town, painting a new set of yellow lines. After the crew laid orange cones on the road, Johnson ran out and nailed one of the cones to the pavement.

"When the crew came back to pick up the cones, one of them almost fell off the truck trying to pick up the one that was nailed to the road," said Bessette Johnson with a laugh. "He was always such a practical joker."

Along with his wife, Johnson is survived by his children, John Johnson and his significant other Karen Germaine of Richmond, and Dan Johnson and his significant other Tanya Seeley of Starksboro and their daughter, Makayla Johnson. He is also survived by several brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, stepchildren and step-grandchildren, most of whom live in the Champlain Valley.

Visiting hours will be held Thursday, Jan. 24 from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Gifford Funeral Home, 22 Depot St. in Richmond. A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 25 in the Williston Federated Church. In lieu of flowers, the family asked that memorial contributions be made to the American Cancer Society, P.O. Box 22718, Oklahoma City, Okla.73123-1718, or to Camp TaKum-Ta, P.O. Box 576, Waterbury, Vt. 05676.