He played a key role in Bethel Seminary's growth, but always connected with people through his preaching.
Gordon Gilbert Johnson served as dean of Bethel Seminary for nearly 20 years, playing an integral role in the storied institution's growth.
But it was Johnson's skills as a preacher that former students, colleagues and others remember most about him, according to Johnson's son, Gregg.
"His heart's desire was being in the church and pastoring," Gregg said. "I think administration was not really his cup of tea. He did it and did it well, but he really enjoyed one-on-one dealings with people. He was an empathic pastoral type but also an excellent preacher."
Johnson, of New Brighton, died April 1. He was 91.
A much sought-after preacher who worked in churches in Wisconsin, New Jersey and Illinois from 1946 to 1959, Johnson was particularly adept at preaching and teaching without notes -- a fact many of his students marveled at, Gregg said.
"He just connected with people, he maintained eye contact with people," Gregg said. Johnson, who was born Nov. 19, 1919, grew up across the street from the old Bethel campus on Snelling Avenue, which is now home to the Hubert H. Humphrey Job Corps Center. Johnson would go on to study at Bethel Junior College and at Moody Bible Institute, where he graduated as valedictorian and met his wife, Alta.
During World War II, Johnson joined the Navy in the chaplaincy program. He finished his undergraduate work at the University of Minnesota in 1945, when he got his bachelor's degree and married Alta, Gregg said. Johnson later received his bachelor of divinity degree from Bethel Seminary, his master's degree in theology from Princeton Seminary and his doctorate of ministry from Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Chicago.
In 1959, Johnson joined the Bethel Seminary faculty as director of field education and professor of preaching. In 1964, he took the position of vice president and dean of the seminary. He was involved in the building of a new seminary campus in Arden Hills, with the first buildings completed in 1965. Johnson also helped to establish a second campus, Bethel Seminary San Diego, which opened in the late 1970s.
In 1984, Johnson retired from Bethel. By the end of his tenure, Bethel had grown from just over 100 students to nearly 600. Johnson went on to become minister of pastoral care and associate pastor at College Avenue Baptist Church in San Diego; taught and served as interim dean at Bethel Seminary San Diego; and was interim pastor at First Baptist Church of Lakewood in Long Beach, Calif.
In 1992, Johnson returned to Minnesota where he continued in interim pastor roles and as a teacher in a variety of settings. He published a book on preaching in 2006 titled "Knowing God Through Story."
Johnson is survived by son Gregg, daughter Gayle Ramer, six grandchildren and one great grandchild. A memorial service will be held at GracePoint Church in New Brighton at 10:30 a.m. Friday.
Rose French • 612-673-4352