Faces In The Crowd: Dale Johnson

July 19, 2019

By Aaron Michell
Correspondent

From an early age, Dale Johnson was taught the importance of toughness, resiliency, and working hard.
Growing up on his family’s Kalamazoo farm, he spent much of his youth working long hours in the fields, or in the barn; tending to crops, raising pigs, sheep, and chickens, and learning the lessons that would lead him to a career teaching others about agriculture.
As a kid, Dale became involved with 4-H and FFA (Future Farmers of America), becoming the state president of 4-H at the age of 19. As an agriscience teacher for the Wexford/Missaukee Career Technical Center he went on to win numerous awards for his contributions to the organizations and to the youth they represent.
For Dale, his life has been blessed by opportunity. And when the opportunities were there, it was about taking advantage of them.
These days, Dale and his wife Gail continue to take advantage of the opportunities they’re given right here in Osceola County. Blessed with three kids – Eric, Amy, and Alex – and eight grandkids, spending time with family is right at the top of his list.
These days, Dale still enjoys the agriscience and horticulture fields – the family garden is full of fruit trees, and multitudes of delicious fruits and vegetables. He still enjoys fishing, hunting, and the occasional motorcycle ride. A graduate of Michigan State University (’72 BS, ’76 MA, and ’80 ES) Dale remains a passionate Spartan fan for life – as do his kids: Eric, Amy, and Alex all went on to graduate from MSU.
We caught up with Dale recently, where he showed us his garden, and shared with us the stories of his life. Some of those stories can be found in his book, “The Hills Where the Black Spruce Grow”. We learned that Dale Johnson is much more than just another face in the crowd.

Dale and Jedi

Marion Press: Where were you born and raised?
Dale: Kalamazoo. I lived in Kalamazoo County, but I went to school in Allegan County, at Plainwell High School – it’s about the size of Cadillac.
MP: And sports were a big part of your life growing up.
Dale: I got seven varsity letters in sports. Football was interesting. My brother played football. At Plainwell, you almost had to play football if you could – there was a lot of peer pressure. In those days you didn’t work at McDonald’s or Burger King – you’d have to drive a long ways if you wanted a decent part-time job, so sports were [a big part of life].
The coach was a little bit goofy. Jack Strauch was his name, and he ended up being the first coach in Michigan to win 200 games in football at the same school. He made the national sports hall of fame for high school coaches.
It was before we had playoffs, but we only lost two games in my two years. I was a kickoff man, and kicked extra points.
And in track, I had four school records. I ran the 400 and 800, but I was probably the fastest in the 200. At the time, we had two or three guys who could run the 200, but the coach would always put me where we didn’t have duplicates.

MP: You went on to run track for Michigan State, what was that like?
Dale: We had three guys jump 25 feet in the long jump. We were Big Ten Champions when I was on the team, and national runners up. We had two world-record guys on the team: Herb Washington, and Marshall Diehl held world records. At Michigan State I wasn’t very good in track, but I did enough to get a letter.
We had a guy do 6’8” in the high jump, and I never jumped 6’0” in high school because I never practiced it. But they put the bar at 6’0” and I never did it before and I went right over – so then I got to be a high jumper! And that was in the ‘60s, and they were just starting the back bend and I didn’t know how to do that – and no one at Michigan State knew how to do it either. Dick Fosbury did it; he was the first guy. I got up to 6’2” doing the back bend, and 6’3” doing the western roll. Oddly I jumped off my left foot for the roll, but I jumped off the right foot for the backbend.

MP: What was life like growing up in the Johnson Family?
Dale: I had two brothers and a sister. We had 300 acres of land all together, down in northern Kalamazoo County. We raised cattle. We did everything: peaches, apples, raspberries. And then we did crops, and every kind of livestock: poultry, raised our own eggs, pigs, sheep – we had like 200 sheep. Basically, it wasn’t any fun being a kid! You never got to be a kid.
My dad, he worked at Farm & Fleet, and at the Kalamazoo Nature Center, and I was 12 years old, running the whole show, and we bailed 2000 bails a day! 90 bails per wagon, and 25 wagon loads per day. On a day [as hot as] today, can you imagine? When you were 12 years old, you did the work of a man – you never got to be a kid.
It also taught me that there was no free lunch, and you’d have to earn your own way – but it didn’t seem like a benefit at the time.
Sometimes on Sundays I got to be a kid. My grandma had a cottage on the lake with a long dock, and she’d take you fishing, and cook you fish – and so my grandma Lida, she was my savior.

MP: You wrote the book, The Hills Where the Black Spruce Grow. How did that come about?
Dale: Jim Blevins [former publisher for the Marion Press] was talking with me about [the paper], and I said well I’ll write a story. He said: ‘Huh?’ So I started doing them once a week – sometimes they’d put them in, and sometimes they wouldn’t. [The column was called] The Hills Where the Black Spruce Grow. I wrote 53 stories, and then added 20 more for the book.
Partly I did it for my family, so they’d have a bit of a history. I’m not really a writer, I’m more of a storyteller.
That’s how I got started. For the last 21 years before I retired, I worked at career technical centers. And the busses from each school would leave at different times. So we’re just killing 10 – 15 minutes before the busses would leave and I’d tell the kids a story. And then every day they’d want to hear one. So I just kept going. And then I refined some of them and wrote them down.

MP: You were involved in 4-H and FFA from an early age.
Dale: From 9 years old. When I was in high school, there was 160,000 members in 4-H and I was elected the state president – I was elected for that in 1969. The beauty of it, is that I got a full-ride scholarship at Michigan State. I got the all-achievement winner for Michigan, which was the highest award you could get for doing projects for the whole state.
Basically, the story of my life is that when I had opportunities, I took advantage of them. I wasn’t really anything special, but I took advantage of opportunities when I could.

MP: Tell us about life after MSU.
Dale: I graduated, and the next day I went to Washington D.C., and then I went to Costa Rica, and then for 14 months I went to develop 4-H clubs in Belize and Central America.
The country was actually British Honduras, but they changed the name to Belize in 1973. So I stayed with a family there, and walked around to villages, like Johnny Appleseed, with thousands of packs of seeds. And then we raised chickens – we’d make a ten by ten chicken pen, and put them up on stilts and put insecticides so the insects wouldn’t strip the feathers off all the chickens.
And we’d raise pigs too, and take bamboo and other materials and make gardens. Basically, the kids in developing nations don’t have enough nutrition, so if they can raise eggs for their family; if they can raise pork and sell some too, and then raise a garden… it got to be so the kids would make more money in their garden than their dads would make cutting sugar cane.

MP: When did you and Gail meet?
Dale: It was 1976, and I didn’t really have a girlfriend. And I went to my parents’ house, and Gail was there because my brother was engaged to Gail’s roommate from Butterworth School of Nursing in Grand Rapids. So, she was there with one of my brother’s friends – but she wasn’t too interested in him. So my brother’s girlfriend and her said they were going to church the next day about 15 miles away, and I had a decent car – a brand new car, in fact. So we went to church.
Those were funny financial days too. I was a teacher, and I didn’t have a car, so I just went to the dealer. They said, ‘Well, you’re gonna be a teacher at Saranac; it’s $152 a month, pick out any car you want.’ But they knew I didn’t have credit; I just said I’d pay and they believed me.

Dale and Gail with their grandaughter Thea.

MP: You and Gail moved to Marion in 1992. What were your impressions?
Dale: Most people were pretty friendly and pretty polite. I didn’t have a super lot to do with Marion because I worked in Cadillac. But Marion was perfect for my kids, because where we came from – Coloma – was a school about Cadillac’s size. And none of my kids took sports that seriously, but they were given opportunities here, so it worked out perfect for us. Plus, they were just nice kids; they got to be class president, student council, they were in choir and band. Outstanding senior awards; national honor society. Alex got the John Phillip Sousa band award. It was perfect for us. It was very beneficial for us. I’ve been blessed. I’ve been lucky. My kids have been great.
And then Gail’s from town, and her mother taught here for 33 years; her dad taught here for 33 years. Ralph and Imogene McCrimmon. She and her brothers, Grant and Gary, all went to Marion.

MP: Did that have an influence on moving to Marion?
Dale: Here’s where God was always with me. We were driving by here – I was coming home late – and there was a For Sale By Owner sign out front. And [former owner] Lynn Salinas was in the house, and I said, ‘How much are you selling it for?’ And she said: ‘$75,000’. I said, ‘We’ll take it.’
She said, ‘You aren’t gonna argue; you aren’t gonna dicker?’ I said: ‘No, I’m not gonna argue, I’m not gonna dicker, nothin. I’ve been looking at houses every day for four months, it’s a fair deal.’
She said: ‘Well I’ll show you the house, but you can’t buy it without showing your wife. I said, ‘She’ll be fine. You’ve got a pole barn, a decent house, $75,000 – shoot, we’ll take it!’
And it’s close to Gail’s parents house, just six miles away, so that was one of the incentives. We knew Ralph and Imogene would pick up the kids from cub scouts, 4-H meetings, sports events; they’d go over and make them supper, make cookies for them. They were the classic grandma and grandpa.

Dale and Jedi

MP: What keeps you busy these days?
Dale: Gardening, woodworking, riding bicycles, scooters. I go fishing a lot; I go hunting. The last ten deer I’ve shot with a bow. I’ve lived here 27 years, and I’ve shot 27 deer. I average about one a year. Last year I shot two – one with a gun and one with a bow. I give a lot of the venison to the kids, Eric and Alex. I like to camp, but we haven’t camped a lot recently. I still go to Michigan State games – football and basketball.

MP: Have you passed along your love of the outdoors to your kids?
Dale: Alex has some interest in it; they all do. Eric’s family is on a trip right now – I was just looking at pictures of them standing by a waterfall, out on vacation. I’ve got eight grandkids, and that’s a blessing. Amy’s coming up next week, so we’ll probably go out fishing. She still loves to fish and camp.

MP: And your garden is pretty amazing.
Dale: I’ll raise too many string beans, so I’ll pick a bushel or three or four sacks and take them up to the Missaukee jail and give them to people. And when Gail’s mom lived in assisted living in Rosebush, I’d pick a full bag of string beans, and Gail would take them down there – the residents would always say, ‘We never get any fresh stuff!’ So I’d just give away stuff. I just do it partly because I can.
And then in the fall, Amy’s daughter and Eric’s kids will come over and I’ll have them pick apples, and then we’ll take ‘em out and grind ‘em up and make cider. So I try to do stuff so that it’s passed on. My grandkids are a blessing.





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