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From flying ‘The Hump’ in the Army Air Corps to Bigfoot Turf Farms, Greeley’s H. Gordon Johnson lived an epic life

January 2, 2019


Terry Frei 


 H. Gordon Johnson, at left, flew “The Hump” for the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II.  (Family photo.)

DeeAnn Groves, a longtime friend of the family who founded Greeley’s Senior Resource Services, years ago decided she wanted to hear and tell H. Gordon Johnson’s story.

All of it.

“He had such a life,” Groves said after Johnson’s memorial service Wednesday morning at Cornerstone Community Church. “I said, ‘Gordon, we’re going to do your life history.’ And he immediately said, ‘No, it’s very boring.'”

Gordon, who was 97 when he died Dec. 19, was wrong.

His life was anything but boring.

“I met with him over I don’t know how long, months, and I just tugged him along,” Groves recalled. “I said, ‘Tell me about this,’ ‘Tell me about that,’ ‘Tell me about this.’ Finally I said, ‘OK, what I’m going to do is call it, ‘Come Fly with Me.’ Now that got his interest. Then he couldn’t hush about flying.”

Groves said Johnson got the most emotional when he spoke about his World War II Army Air Corps pilot duty, flying various huge military cargo planes to China — above the eastern end of the Himalayas, or over “The Hump” — to resupply the Chinese forces of Chiang Kai-shek.

“He was scared,” Groves said. “He didn’t know if he would come back. I could see the emotions he showed. It was just unbelievable when he was talking about it. The tears came.”

That was just a snapshot in his life, just a part of Groves’ eventual manuscript, which she never intended to publish.


Wanda and H. Gordon Johnson were married for nearly 70 years before Wanda’s 2011 death. (Jordan Reyes)

The family-supplied obituary for Johnson that ran in The Tribune was so extensive that Pastor Linda Randolph — officiating at the memorial service Wednesday — simply read it.

Johnson went from being raised on a farm outside Fort Collins and a year of college to wartime U.S. Army Air Forces pilot duty, also as part of the Army Air Transport Command. He obtained his commercial pilots license and instructor certification as a civilian before the start of U.S. involvement in World War II.

Returning to Colorado after the war, he earned a mechanical engineering degree from what is now Colorado A&M and moved to Greeley to found Irrigation and Power Equipment. He sold what became Raincat Center Pivot Irrigation System to Toro in the 1970s, but next operated three ranches in the Greeley area. Finally, he sold two of the ranches and turned the third into Bigfoot Turf Farms in LaSalle.

He was an icon in the business community, serving on many boards, including that of Greeley United Bank. Active in Rotary, he was both Greeley president and a district governor, traveling in his own plane to visit other clubs.

His marriage to Wanda Phillips lasted nearly 70 years, until her death in 2011.

To their two children, Greg, 66, and Beth, 68, Johnson was “dad.”

“He loved contributing to a larger cause than himself,” Greg said. “He loved all the family, all the kids, just took care of everybody and he instilled a work ethic in me. I was mowing lawns when I was 7 years old. He did get me an Allis-Chambers tractor to mow them with. I think I had 12 lawns, but sometimes 30 of ’em.”


Greg Johnson of LaSalle, H. Gordon Johnson’s son, accepts condolences at the reception following the memorial service at Cornerstone Community Church. (Jordan Reyes)

Greg remembered a harrowing five-hour visit with his unflappable father. At the time, Greg was in his early 20s.

“We were flying in his (Beechcraft) Baron to San Francisco to go to one of my cousins’ weddings,” Greg said. “We had to get there. We landed in Salt Lake for fuel. And on takeoff, one of the engines sputtered a bit. He automatically reached down, threw on the fuel boost and got the engine running. We took off, no problem. That was no big deal for him after all the flying he had done.

“Then we started hitting weather on the way to California … and started to ice up a little bit. But it was never a problem for him. We just kept going on instruments and just dropped down into San Francisco. … We had probably four to five hours together in that airplane working as a team.”

When Johnson went through a fight with prostate cancer in 1999, Greg and his family moved back to the Greeley area from Glenwood Springs to run the farm.

Johnson eventually drove out to the farm — which evolved into a baseball field and other related businesses — virtually daily until he was 94.


 H. Gordon Johnson late in life

“It was hard for him to let go, to let us take over and run the thing,” Greg said. “But he did, and we had some good times. To watch him with his grandkids and to be able to be together every holiday, all of that was pretty special.”

Greg said his dad driving to the farm was a point of pride.

“He’d say, ‘Yeah, I still drive to work every day,'” Greg said. “He’d come out about 10 (a.m.) and take a nap in his little bunkhouse we had for him. He’d pick up the (bank) deposit at 11:30 (a.m.) and drive back in. That was him going to work every day. He did it. It kept him busy.

“We have a guy who lives right by the bank. It would have been very easy to send the deposits with him, but (Johnson) had to take the deposits in with him. And he’d sit out by the mailbox and wait for the mailman. If the mail was 10 minutes late, he’d give John, our mail guy, a hard time.”

Beth Johnson, an artist and writer, lived much of her adulthood in New Mexico and India before returning to Greeley in 2017. Johnson by then was at Grace Point Assisted Living, and Beth lived in his house and visited him at the care facility several times per week.


H. Gordon Johnson’s ashes were on the Cornerstone Community Church altar at his memorial service. (Jordan Reyes)

“It was great to have a smart dad like him to teach me so many things when I was younger,” she said. “He was really brilliant in mechanical things, fixing things, inventing things. It was exciting to be around him. He was very generous and I loved him a lot. And my mom was really wonderful, one of the kindest people you would ever meet. He was lucky to have a wonderful wife like her.”

Norm Dean, 98, was president of United Bank of Greeley when Johnson was a board member.

What was Johnson like on the board?

“Stubborn,” Dean said, then laughed. “He had his own mind, I’ll tell you. The bank eventually sold to United Banks of Colorado, a holding company. In order for them to pay a dividend, we had to pay them a dividend. (Johnson) always voted against the dividend. He thought we should keep the money. As a board member, he was very thoughtful and insightful and considered everything carefully.

“(Johnson) was a good friend, a very good friend. He was kind and thoughtful, but he was a very good businessman. We were both World War II vets, too. I was in the Navy. I flew for many years, too, in a Beechcraft Baron. It was a lovely plane. But I quit flying and so I sold the plane to (Johnson). He already had an old Baron. Mine was a really nice plane and I said, ‘I think you’re enjoy flying that.’ He said, ‘Maybe I’ll put ’em both up for sale.’ He sold my plane and kept the old one.”


Cornerstone Community Church pastor Linda Randolph officiated at H. Gordon Johnson’s memorial service. (Jordan Reyes)

Pete Morrell was president of Greeley Rotary when Johnson was the district governor.

“He’s just so organized and I found him really good to work with,” said Morrell, a former City Manager of Greeley and now president and owner of Morrell & Associates, a leadership, management and development firm. “The district governor has to travel to Wyoming, Nebraska and everyplace, and he had it made because he could fly his own plane to all those places. He didn’t need to take up his time to drive to all those places. He has to visit each one of those clubs at least once. So he made a great district governor. We have a saying in Rotary that you can be in Rotary or you can become a Rotarian. He was a Rotarian.”

Near the end of the memorial service, bugler Ian Sawyer of Loveland played “Taps,” and a recording of the Air Force Song was played.

It’s the one that goes, “Off we go into the wild blue yonder …”.