In the months before the Minnesota Zoo's annual Beastly Ball, Ron Johnson would scurry around the Twin Cities in search of high-value donations for the event's fundraising auction. It was the perfect volunteer job for a retired super-salesman who loved animals and took pride in giving.
"If he couldn't get someone to donate an item that he wanted, he'd go out and buy it,'' said Susan Milteer, co-chair of the Beastly Ball. "Not a lot of people would do that.''
The black-tie gala, now in its 25th year, will proceed next April without Johnson, who died last week at age 77.
When the zoo's big night arrived, Johnson would don a tuxedo and pay his own way as a high-level patron. In addition, he would donate "an amazing number" of auction items from his own private stash of collectible merchandise, Milteer said.
Johnson was an extrovert of Swedish descent who loved to socialize and make things happen, his family and friends said.
"He was kind of known as Ron 'Get it Done' Johnson,'' said his son, Chad Johnson of Minneapolis.
As Minneapolis branch manager for a division of Carrier Corp. from the mid-1960s to the early 1990s, Ronald Eugene Johnson sold air conditioning systems and refrigeration equipment for some of the state's largest buildings. Chad said his father was proud of the deals he swung to put "chillers'' in the Metrodome and the IDS Tower. Johnson also was responsible for major cooling installations at Medtronic's manufacturing plant in Fridley and the Osborn Building in downtown St. Paul, according to Pete Wilcken of Roseville, a former Carrier colleague.
Johnson would practice his sales pitches and corporate slide shows at home, using kids as an audience, according to his daughter, Laurie Milani of Delano.
"He could sell a ketchup Popsicle to a woman in white gloves,'' Milani said. "He was a character and a half.''
Johnson was married and divorced three times to wives Patsy, Diane and Claudette, Chad Johnson said. His marriages produced four children, including Debbie Johnson of Minneapolis and Danton Johnson of Clearwater, Fla.
"He loved women,'' Milani said. "He was a charmer, that's for sure.''
In his retirement, Johnson often opened his home in west Bloomington to visitors, where he kept a garden and threw pool parties. He loved pets and left behind a Siamese cat, cocker spaniel, springer spaniel and poodle. Chad Johnson said his father was a regular contributor to the Animal Humane Society and would visit the Golden Valley animal shelter to deliver newspaper bedding that he shredded himself.
Ron Johnson grew up next to Wrigley Field in Chicago and reveled in memories of charging frightened suburbanites 25 cents to protect their automobiles from theft and vandalism while they watched Cubs baseball games.
Johnson joined Carrier as a warehouse laborer, according to his son, then took company-sponsored schooling to become a draftsman, and later transitioned into sales and management, where he thrived. He was with the company for 36 years, taking jobs in St. Louis and Overland Park, Kan., before landing in the Twin Cities.
Johnson is survived by his ex-wives, four children and six grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Dec. 15 at Emanuel Lutheran Church in Sandstone, Minn.
Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213