When Lynn Johnson passed away last Sunday after a long illness, family and associates say they didn’t just lose a father and successful businessman. They lost the blueprint for how to build a life through hard work, dedication and focus.
Johnson, 84, built his Johnson Brothers Liquor Co. into one of the nation’s largest wholesalers with the same kind of tireless worth ethic and passion that he approached every part of his life, longtime friend Sam Kaplan said.
“I regarded him to be one of the most unforgettable people I have ever known,” said Kaplan, who knew Johnson for 40 years. “He had passion for everything he did. Work, family. He was so focused on whatever he was doing, you could just see that he had every one of the nerve endings in his mind focusing on that.”
Johnson used that determination — and seemingly endless hours of work — to build Johnson Brothers from a one-man operation in St. Paul into a nationwide distributor with more than 2,200 employees, said his son and business partner, Todd Johnson. As a boy, Lynn grew up in St. Paul learning from his parents, who ran family grocery and hotel businesses, and absorbed their entrepreneurial spirit.
After attending St. Thomas Academy and the University of Minnesota — and stints in the Minnesota National Guard and U.S. Air Force — Johnson launched into the liquor business as “a one-man band,” his son said.
He spent days selling, filling orders in a rented warehouse at night and making deliveries early the next morning with his only truck.
“He was a 24-year-old kid going against industry giants. He was like a guy setting up a hamburger stand saying he was going to take on McDonalds and Burger King,” Todd Johnson said. “He had little money, no sales force. But he had guts, drive, determination and competitiveness. He ended up buying many of them out years later.”
Johnson later established the Lynn Johnson Family Foundation to give back to the community, supporting schools, hospitals, police and other organizations. More recently, he started a scholarship for children of the liquor industry, Todd Johnson said. And, a few years ago, he helped start the Shalom Johnson Hospice Center in St. Paul, dedicated to the memory of his parents Yale and Sara.
“My dad felt strongly that everyone should be able to die in dignity, no matter who they are, how much money they had, or where they came from,” Todd Johnson said.
Kaplan, a well-known Twin Cities attorney and general counsel for the Minnesota Wine and Spirits Wholesalers Association, delivered Johnson’s eulogy to nearly 700 people at Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul. Johnson, he told the crowded synagogue, lived every moment to the fullest.
And he wanted people to know they mattered to him. Johnson, who had 11 grandchildren, would invite them to his house one at a time so each could feel special.
Johnson is survived by his wife, Gloria, of St. Paul; his brother, Mitchell Johnson, of Minneapolis; daughter, Robin Johnson of Eden Prairie; sons Brad Johnson of Edina and Michael and Todd Johnson of St. Paul.
“We won’t see another one like him anytime soon,” Kaplan said.