R. Kenmore (Ken) Johnson was a torchbearer when the Olympic flame passed through New Brighton on its way to the 1996 games in Atlanta. It was a fitting honor for the man who deeply invested himself in the north metro suburb and inspired others to do the same.
From the late 1960s to the late 1990s, Johnson was a champion for the city in big and small ways. He advocated for building the city’s busy community center. He was a member of the Jaycees, chairman of the city’s Park and Recreation Board, and congregational president at Christ the King Lutheran Church. For Election Day, he hand painted “Vote Today” signs and placed them around the city.
As president and CEO of Catalog Marketing Systems (CMS), a company that supplied names and addresses to firms such as Cabela’s and Gander Mountain, Johnson supported employees who did volunteer work. And he allowed them to do it during the workday. Johnson was also deeply involved in Habitat for Humanity, and his employees often joined him to build affordable homes in New Brighton.
“He felt it was important to give back,” said his daughter Dana Cossette of Plymouth.
Johnson had a birthday tradition of water skiing on Coon Lake in East Bethel. On July 9, his 78th birthday, he “made a nice cut” and completed his final lap just before he suffered a heart ailment and died, his daughter said.
Johnson graduated from Alexander Ramsey High School in Roseville. In 1963, he earned a business degree from Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, where he also was a wrestler. He was one of three founders of CMS, which evolved into a database company. During his tenure, Johnson developed a loyal cadre of employees who recalled his entrepreneurial spirit and generosity.
“One day Ken handed me an envelope with some money in it and said, ‘You can have this but only if you take the rest of the day off and buy something for yourself,’ ” said Sue Graybill, who started at CMS in 1987 and still works for the company now called Merkle. “Ken cared and invested in people.”
Johnson was awarded Ernst & Young’s 1995 Entrepreneur Socially Responsible Award. He met former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, during a banquet when Carter thanked him for his work with Habitat for Humanity.
Johnson founded the Christ the King Church Foundation and made the first substantial contribution, said the Rev. Paul Larsen, the church’s senior pastor from 1999 to 2013. Johnson headed the foundation’s board for 15 years and was on the building and finance committees when the church went through a major expansion in 1991. Johnson also served on the church council.
“He was a problem solver and it seemed like he could always come up with a solution when problems arose,” Larsen said. “He was very dedicated and committed to fulfilling his responsibilities. He was a person of faith and he lived out that faith in his everyday life.”
Johnson had triple bypass heart surgery at 44. After that, he started working out three days a week at 6 a.m. at Life Time Fitness in Fridley, where he made many friends. He also began visiting patients in hospitals who were going through similar circumstances, family members said.
Johnson learned to water ski as a child at the family cabin on Coon Lake. In 1998, he built a house on the lake to continue his lifelong passion and his civic involvement as a member of the Coon Lake Improvement Association.
In addition to Cossette, Johnson is survived by his wife of 53 years, Elouise, and another daughter, Krista Fragola of Orono. Services have been held.