Door County’s 1-man Chamber of Commerce: Al Johnson

My village of Sister Bay has endured considerable losses within the past few weeks. First we lost Johnny Veith, of Johnny’s Cottage Restaurant fame; then Al Johnson; and, most recently, Bob Thompson, the dean of The Peninsula Players. All men led full and productive lives, but the loss of all three in such a short period of time is particularly difficult for a village, and a peninsula, to bear. And while I knew and admired all three men, I always considered Al Johnson a special friend.

Earlier this week when I was thinking about Al and his family, a curious revelation came to me, something my own father would call a co-incident (my father didn’t believe in coincidence). My father died five weeks after I turned 40 years old, and Al died about four months before the 40-year anniversary of our first meeting. How strange it seems to realize that Al was a part of my life almost as long as my father.

When my family returned to the Midwest in 1970 we took our first vacation that fall during teacher’s convention weekend. My parents had honeymooned in Door County in the early 1950s, and they were curious to see the peninsula again. My great-grandmother (my mother’s grandmother), Hilda Dahlstrom, fixed Swedish pancakes for us as a special treat each time we visited her, so the opportunity to eat Swedish pancakes at Al Johnson’s was a logical choice for us during our first weekend visit.

This was before the grass roof and the goats, of course, in a simpler, less distinctive building. But Al was there, greeting guests and hustling about through the dining room. I was 12 years old at the time, but I still clearly remember Al, talking to us, scurrying about clearing and setting tables, seating guests when needed, and all the while managing to carry on a conversation with my mother and father.

Over the next few years, before my family moved to the peninsula, we became regular visitors to Door County and Al Johnson’s – coming at all times of the year, even the dead of winter. And every time we entered the restaurant, there was Al, working just as hard, greeting us by name; anxious to be caught up on all that had happened since the last time we visited. Out he’d come from the kitchen and, spotting us seated across the dining room, he’d boom, “Grutzmachers! Welcome back!”

My father loved to listen to the radio. Whatever room he was in, he’d be listening to one or another of the radios that filled our home in Beloit. If he went outside he’d carry a radio outdoors to continue listening. His preferred station was WGN from Chicago and, back in the early 1970s, WGN featured Wally Phillips as their morning anchor. It is impossible to overstate how popular Wally Phillips was at that time: everyone listened to Wally in Chicagoland.

Back then, Door County didn’t have a Visitor’s Bureau, or even its forerunner, the Door County Chamber of Commerce. Back then we had Al Johnson.

I remember my father, calling from the bathroom as he was shaving one morning in our Beloit home, “Al Johnson’s on the radio!”

Sure enough, Al was on the air with Wally Phillips, letting Wally – and all his millions of listeners – know that the cross-country skiing was great, that the ice fishermen were on the bay, and the weather was fantastic.

And folks, this wasn’t just a now and then occurrence – Al called regularly. Coming out of a commercial break, there was Wally Phillips’ voice: “So what’s the forecast for the weekend in Door County, Al?” And Al would pitch his beloved Door County, as only an ardent lover of this peninsula is capable.

After Wally Phillips retired, Al continued pitching Door County on the air with Phillips’ replacement, Bob Collins, and the two developed a close friendship. So, in effect, Al was our ambassador to the outside world.

Back when I was working (along with numerous other individuals) on building a permanent home for what was then called Northern Door Child Care & Learning Center. I talked a great deal with Al about the need for a new facility. I was passionate in my belief of the need for a new facility, and I knew that support from my friend Al Johnson would go a long way to helping achieve this goal.

Unexpectedly, Al wasn’t terribly receptive at the outset. Day after day, when I stopped for my morning coffee before heading to the store, I’d lay out my rationale. And day after day, Al would offer counter arguments or, occasionally, was simply not receptive.

Eventually, however, Al offered his endorsement, and I have always been suspicious that his reluctance was simply his way of testing me, of making me refine my arguments, and sharpen my pitch. Whether I am correct or not, I will never know – Al never confirmed or denied my suspicion.

My father died in early May 1998, two weeks before we broke ground on the new child care center. After a long and difficult summer and fall, we celebrated the grand opening of the center in early December 1998. Al and his wife, Ingert, came to the opening and later, when I had the opportunity to provide them with a tour, Al said to me, “It’s a wonderful thing you people have done here. Your father would be very proud of you today.”

That one comment made all the work and time, worthwhile.

Of course, after family, his restaurant, and Door County, Al’s abiding love was sports – particularly Chicago sports. When people asked me through the years how I could be a Bears’ fan in Packers’ country I would always point out that there were other Bears’ fans in Sister Bay: Kenny Church at Sister Bay Automotive, for one. But my ultimate hole card was Al Johnson. With Al as an ardent Bears’ fan, Kenny and I (and all the other Bears’ fans) were safe. Sure we took some ribbing now and then, just as we could tease and taunt when our team was prevailing. Now, without Al among us, we Bears’ fans are left on our own.

The single interest that bound Al and I (and my father) together, however, was the Chicago Cubs. Driving past the bookstore and spotting me outside, Al would stop in the middle of the street, regardless of the time of the year or the traffic, to call out an observation about the current state of the Cubs.

One day, when my father was still alive and both of us happened to be in the bookstore, Al stopped in exuberant about the Cubs and said, “If the Cubs make it to the World Series, I’m taking you guys with me to a game.”

After my father died, he renewed his offer: “You and I are still going to see the Cubs in the World Series.”

Of course, the Cubs never made it to the World Series, and I never made a Cubs game with Al.

But if the Cubs ever do make it to the World Series, I think I’ll make a point of going to at least one game with Al’s son, Lars. We will be obligated to take our sons, of course, but I bet I can convince Lars to buy two extra tickets. I’ll buy one for my dad, and he can buy one for his dad. And all of us will share a long and wonderful evening together in the wonderful, friendly confines of Wrigley Field.