Cliff Johnson had a story to tell, and he told it well. It was the story of a South Dakota farmboy, blessed with a "velvet, bass-baritone voice" and something to say, who made it to Hollywood and became a success in radio, then turned his back on all the glamor and came back to the Midwestâ€"to Oak Park and River Forest in factâ€"to raise his family, and became even more successful by broadcasting from his breakfast table, surrounded by his family. When the kids grew up, he and his wifeâ€"the one who made him leave Hollywood or elseâ€"opened a travel agency, which became a mainstay on Marion Street for decades.
It was a good story, which he told well and told often. As his River Forest neighbor Paul Harvey would say, here is the rest of the story. In fact, here is it is his own words (he penned the rough outline for his eulogy a few years back):
"Cliff Johnson never forgot where he came from. His South Dakota prairie roots resonated with his life-long love of simplicity. He will be remembered not only as a skilled communicator, veteran broadcaster and entrepreneur, but as a devoted husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. He loved to sing, belting out a song, not only in church but in the car and the fishing boat."
Cliff Johnson, who died Feb. 25, 2005 at the age of 89, was born in South Dakota in 1915 and moved to Hollywood as a young man, landing a job as an interviewer with radio station KNX. He worked on CBS radio shows such as Queen for a Day and filled in as Art Linkletter's backup on Art Linkletter's House Party.
It was the famous "Kids say the darndest things" segment that gave him the idea for his greatest claim to radio fame back here in the Chicago area, the CBS-WBBM-WGN mutual network show, Breakfast with the Johnsons. In 1947, he "wired" the kitchen table of his Oak Park home on Woodbine Avenue and broadcast, completely unrehearsed and ad-libbed, "the family life with his wife, Luella, and their five children, the dog, cat, parakeet, morning milkman, friends, neighbors and the family doctor."
The show was a nationwide hit and lasted until 1957. Recordings and artifacts from the show are part of Bruce DuMont's Museum of Broadcast Communications collection.
Johnson finished his radio career as managing editor of WNUS, the nation's first all-news format station, from 1964 to 1968. But Cliff always preferred the way Paul Harvey told it: "Cliff Johnson refereed oatmeal fights for 10 years, got paid handsomely for it, and when his kids grew up, he had to go back to work."
He became a licensed real estate and insurance broker, then started Cliff Johnson Travel, which became a fixture on Marion Street.
But the story still wasn't finished.
In the early 1990s, he enrolled at Concordia University and completed his long-delayed bachelor's degree in 1993 at the age of 77. The same year, he lost his soulmate, Luella, whom he described as "my school-aged sweetheart, a remarkable woman." His son, Cliff Jr., said he never really got over the loss, but kept going and kept busy. In 2002, he earned a master's degree from Concordia at the age of 87, then became a communications consultant for the school.
In fact, Cliff Jr. credits his father with working diligently for 16 years to heal the rift that separated Concordia and Grace Lutheran Church, resulting from the Missouri Synod/ELCA split.
"My dad dedicated his life to the concept of the 'Judeo-Christian roundtable,'" said Cliff Jr. He brought together representatives from many faiths and put together a video religious history of Oak Park and River Forest in the late 1990s, taking full advantage of Concordia's TV production technology. He also put out a CD, titled Passages to Peace, indulging his love of reading the Bible aloud.
But his story still hadn't been told the way he wanted it told, so he turned to his friend and former pastor, Rev. Dean Lueking, who last year published Up There with the Big Boysâ€"The Cliff Johnson Story, featuring a photo of the family seated at the kitchen table during their radio heyday.
His son, in describing his father, kept using the word "integral."
"He had a real passion for the community and was a vital part right up till the end," Cliff Jr. said. "He loved his computer and was always e-mailing people."
In the mid-1980s, Cliff founded the Volunteer Center, and served as president of the Rotary and Lions clubs, as well as the American Society of Travel Agents. He was one of the recipients of the Carl Winters Volunteer of the Year Award.
Cliff Johnson is survived by his children, Sandra, Pamela, Linda, Vicki and Cliff Jr.; 15 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m., March 12 at Grace Lutheran Church, 7300 Division St. in River Forest, with a reception to follow at Concordia. In lieu of flowers, memorials in Cliff's name may be sent to either Concordia University, 7400 Augusta Blvd., River Forest or to Grace Lutheran Church.
But the last word on the Cliff Johnson story goes to Cliff himself: "Ninety-plus years on this planet [OK, he was an optimist] have been an adventurous journey. From a corn plow in South Dakota to worldwide experiences, Cliff Johnson has found eternal peace. He beat us there."