Barbara Swain got a sense of what kind of man Dennis Johnson was the first time they met, on a blind date.
He took her flying in his airplane.
Johnson was like that for the duration of their 27-year marriage -- always living life to the utmost.
"He didn't do anything halfway," Swain said of Johnson's many passions, from trying cases as a well-known litigator, to flying, to fishing, to competing in triathlons. "He mastered it," she said.
Johnson, a partner at the law firm Meshbesher & Spence until his retirement three years ago, died Sept. 4 at 65 from injuries in a bicycling accident in Colorado.
Johnson grew up in south Minneapolis. His mother was a secretary, his father a lawyer. He attended Southwest High School, where he joined the swim team, adopting one of the passions that he would explore later in life when he took up triathlons.
He tried engineering at the University of Minnesota but dropped out before finishing a degree. He later told Swain, "It's hard to do well when you don't show up for class." Instead, he joined the Army and fought in Vietnam as a paratrooper.
Swain, of Edina, said Johnson knew he was lucky to return from the war uninjured, but he talked about how he had had to grow up fast, she said.
After his discharge in 1972, he earned a business degree at the University of Minnesota, and then went straight to law school there. He soon went to work for Meshbesher and spent the rest of his career at the firm as a personal injury attorney.
"He really enjoyed helping people who'd been injured, representing them and advocating for them," Swain said.
When their daughter, Lisa, was born, he gave up flying because it was too dangerous, Swain said. But he had no shortage of other interests -- photography, skiing and fishing were just a few, she said.
When he retired, he took up triathlons -- he finally had the time to devote to the training, Swain said. He made a whole new circle of friends, all fellow distance athletes.
"He was game for anything," said Helen Gunther, a friend who trained with him. "No matter where he went he instantly made friends."
A year ago, Johnson volunteered to help at an Ironman triathlon in Madison, Wis., and decided he could do the extreme event: a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run. He trained all year for it.
In August he and his wife went to Boulder, Colo., to photograph some friends competing in a triathlon. One morning he went out for a training ride and fell while coming down a hill. He was wearing a helmet, but sustained brain injuries that kept him in intensive care in Boulder for a month.
Swain said one of most important things Johnson mastered in a life of challenges was his addiction to alcohol. He quit drinking before they met and stayed sober for 34 years.
"He will always be our Ironman," she said.
Johnson is survived by Swain; his daughter, Lisa Johnson; and his sister, Marge Stansfield.
Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394