Funeral observances for Robert "BJ" Johnson included a coffin that he picked out at Costco, a jacket reflecting his decades of commitment to St. Olaf College and its musicians, and a memorial service with Psalms he selected.
Johnson was a longtime manager of St. Olaf concert events and travels, who brooded over everything from the safety of students' hotels to the quality of their concert venues. He wouldn't have wanted his funeral any other way.
"He was a manager, you know," his wife, Sigrid Johnson, said.
Johnson died at age 71 on Oct. 16 after a yearlong battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), leaving a legacy as an innovator who helped elevate St. Olaf's concert groups on an international stage. Cards and calls from St. Olaf graduates have come from across the country, reflecting the impact he had both on the college and on individual students over the past four decades.
"He was so proud of all of them," said his wife, a college conductor and music educator. "He felt they were of the caliber that they should be in the best halls."
Hired in 1978 to manage St. Olaf's music organizations and commercial recordings, Johnson worked with Twin Cities Public Television to make the college's Christmas Festival concert a regular televised feature. In 2007 and 2011, the concerts were livestreamed to movie theaters throughout the country. He earned an Emmy Award in 2014, one year before retirement, for a TV production of a Christmas concert in Norway. Johnson traveled to Norway numerous times and arranged 30 international trips for St. Olaf's performers.
At an Oct. 20 concert by the St. Olaf orchestra, conductor Steven Amundson shared memorial tributes about Johnson from former students. One said Johnson changed his life; another recalled Johnson's "morning song," which the tenor would sing to one musician each morning when they got on the bus to a concert.
"None of our music-making would be at the level it is today without BJ's incredibly strong advocacy and support," Amundson said.
Johnson grew up in Alexandria, Minn., and met his wife when they were music majors at Concordia College in Moorhead. The singers got married in 1971 and supported one another, moving to Michigan so Sigrid could earn her master's degree in vocal performance, and then to Northfield when BJ was hired by St. Olaf. Their sons, Peter and Andrew, attended St. Olaf and sang in its choirs.
Johnson was sincere, but loved to laugh, his wife said. "He just was charming and funny — solid, you know."
Following the ALS diagnosis, Johnson's family planned a trip last spring to Norway to follow the St. Olaf choir and orchestra on a concert tour. More than 30 friends and relatives joined on the trip with Johnson, who was in a wheelchair by that time, as they moved among Bergen, Stavanger, Trondheim and Oslo, where the St. Olaf students performed in front of Norway's King Harald.
"That was really the culmination of a lifetime of commitment to St. Olaf and to Norway," his wife said.
The group was nicknamed the "Library Club," which had been Johnson's code for years for adult chaperones to meet in a hotel room after a tour concert to celebrate with a glass of wine. The travel group made jackets for the spring trip featuring the St. Olaf logo and the Norwegian flag. Johnson later requested to be buried in his jacket.
He is survived by his wife, sons and two grandsons, all of whom live in the Twin Cities area.
Services have been held.