My late friend Ron Johnson
The life of a visionary gay man
I miss my friend Ron Johnson terribly.
One of the toughest things I had to do. I visited Ron in the Intensive Care Unit of then St. Luke’s–Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. Walking in to the facility near Amsterdam Ave and 111th Street in Manhattan three years ago, I didn’t want to be recognized this day by members of the public for what I do professionally as a TV and Radio personality. I was there on a tough emotional mission. Ron’s end was near. I rode the elevator up to the ICU in a deep emotional state. I tried to “man up.” To prepare myself for what I was about to see. I couldn’t take looking at all the tubes connected to my buddy’s body. I had come to say my final good-bye. It was a sense of being completely powerless. I started to cry. The machines barely kept Ron alive but in my heart, I knew Ron had already gone off to be with God. Standing over my friend’s bed listening to the beeping of the machinery, I thought about how life had been so unfair to Ron Johnson. In 2018 gay people can marry the person they love. Ron existed in a different time. Before Obama and his Vice President Joe Biden pushed America forward on Gay Rights. This was before the country evolved with this issue.
Ron never complained. He came up in a time when it was even tough to be gay in his own African American community. Ron would tell me being gay at that time was so shunned in the Black community that then highly popular Ebony Magazine would almost never write an article about a gay person. It bothered him, and I had never noticed that before as it related to Ebony Magazine. But this was the world that Ron lived in. Ron’s response to painful episodes in his life solely because he was a gay man, including not even being accepted by his own family, Ron would almost always respond with humor.
The irony is Ron was more a man than 95 percent of the males I know.
Over a 25-year friendship Ron Johnson was a complicated soul, but he had earned my respect. He wasn’t that tall, only about 5.6 and over time finally accepted that diets were not for him. Like everybody else, diets left Ron frustrated. He preferred to be happy and eat what he wanted. Ron Johnson had a heart of Gold. At times he came close to losing his spirit, and became self-destructive, but Ron never gave up on life. In fact, Ron loved life. To be in a room with Ron, he was always the life of the party. The women loved him for his remarkable bold, direct and graphic way of telling stories. Ron would dance with the women for hours and he would also give you his classic gesture.
Putting his right hand up in the air, Ron would wave it from left to right, and snap his finger. He would say at the same thing, “Ms. Thing.” That one gesture could be positive or negative. That was Ron. But believe me, you knew which one it meant based on the look on Ron’s face.
Ron would also say things like “Girl you pee.” With the inflection of his voice going up. “Girl you pee,” meant you were doing something positive. Or “Oh Ms. Thing,” could mean you really screwed up. Ron gave me a few of those throughout the years. As a journalist I could hold mayors and Presidents accountable, but when Ron told me “Oh Ms. Thing,” that was his way of chastising me whether I wanted it or not. To know Ron meant you knew he was entitled to give you his opinion. Whether you wanted his opinion or not. Ron and I would talk about life topics. We never discussed our friendship and how much he meant to me. Ron in that hospital bed was unconscious, and I regretted I did not let him know in life that I truly loved him. He was my friend.
Lately I find myself a bit nostalgic. Annually during the winter months , I’m mesmerized by the snow and the beautiful scenery traveling the Palisades Parkway right outside New York City, which goes from New York, to New Jersey, and then back to New York within a matter of minutes. The ride up the Palisades Parkway reminded me of an experience many years ago. Returning back to upstate, Cortland New York from the big apple after a Christmas break to go back to college, we encountered a “white out” of snow on I-81 between Binghamton and Cortland. Cars were piled up on both sides of the highway. Alongside of me was my girlfriend at the time Marilyn and her best friend Ron. Ron would end up being a dear friend to me for many years.
To say that Ron was a very colorful and flamboyant character who always had everyone in stitches would be the understatement of the year. Ron died several years ago in that hospital room from (COPD) Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. A lung disease that robs the patient of a proper airflow, fluid retention, and COPD causes loss of appetite, coughing, chest pains and fatigue. Ron’s loss of oxygen resulted in his heart stopping and ultimately his brain shutting down. Ron was a smoker who went through several packs of cigarettes a day. A habit he said that he picked up during his years in the military. Making matters even worse, Ron loved non-filtered cigarettes.
I can pretty much tell when his death anniversary is coming up. That “girlfriend” Marilyn has now been my wife of some thirty years. Either Marilyn gets very solemn or she starts playing her and Ron’s favorite music and she dances to a classic song titled “The Hustle” by artist Van McCoy. Over the years, I would come home from work and Marilyn and Ron would be dancing. In the beginning I must admit I was somewhat jealous that she had a dance partner and I was not it.
Ron’s reputation preceded him. I remember hearing about this exciting character from her family and friends before I met him. Of course, that means my first encounter with Ron was difficult at best. He and Marilyn arrived to pick me up for the ride back to Cortland, New York. Ron was sitting in the front seat and I expected him to move to the back once I got in, since it was my girlfriend’s car. To know Ron Johnson is to know that he did not budge from the front seat. In fact, he causally said to Marilyn:
“That’s the boy?”
Turning around in the driver’s seat, Marilyn looked back at me and laughed as I sat in the back seat incredulous. Marilyn always the diplomat, decided that Ron and I would rotate seats throughout the three-and-a-half-hour journey from NYC up to Cortland, NY, which is 30 miles south of Syracuse, New York.
From that faithful day and introduction, I got to know Ron. Ron Johnson was an army veteran who served in Thailand during the Vietnam War and had left the military many years ago. He would intrigue us with his adventures with that part of the world. Also, he told us about the number of service men who were hooked on alcohol, marijuana and eventually opiates overseas. Asked if he had partaken in these drugs, to know my buddy Ron Johnson, you knew when he responded that he would not lie. Ron would always tell you exactly the way it was. Ron said yes and often confessed to having an addictive personality. When I met Ron, he said he was addicted to alcohol, cigarettes and food. Marilyn as a history major in college was fascinated by his tales. I found Ron’s stories interesting at times.
Ron and Marilyn had met during Ron’s second try at college. In his first attempt, he joined his brother and sister in law at SUNY Cortland years before. The same college Marilyn attended, and down the road, I would as well.
Ron always believed he should have been part of the Mensa Society (the largest and oldest IQ society in the world) and he said he felt stifled at college and decided to return to New York to work. After working several jobs including one at the New York City Medical examiner’s office he decided that he wanted to go back to college. According to Ron Johnson he could no longer look at dead bodies. He had enough of that during the war.
His second try at college is when he met Marilyn. He used to borrow her science notes because it was a rarity for him to show up to class. Marilyn could hear Ron knocking on doors at her dorm, asking are you in Biology 101. He eventually ended up at Marilyn’s room and of course she said yes, I am in that class. At times, my friend Ron could be the luckiest guy in the world. He ended up with a “B” as a final grade in Biology 101. Marilyn who helped him, received a “C.” Through the years Ron would often tease Marilyn about how he received a better grade from her notes and he never went to class.
Oh, by the way Ron was let go from SUNY-Cortland when he decided to steal the English final exam. In classic Ron Johnson fashion, he confessed but he wanted it on the “record” that how do you expect first generation students to pass an English final when they are not taught properly in New York City public schools? While the committee listened to what they called a rant, Ron was expelled.
But Ron always had a way of landing on his feet. He would bounce back. Ron always surrounded himself with friends that when he was in trouble, they would have his back. Ron Johnson ended up working for a prestigious ivy league college in New York City in financial Aid and the students and staff adored him.
I quickly learned the hard way, that Ron was part of Marilyn’s “family.” When we got married I inherited Ron and his stunts, dramatics and theatrics over the years. How about the New Year’s Eve party when Ron got so inebriated that he fell and had to have his jaw wired. Or the time he was speeding and had Marilyn’s car impounded.
My male friends who met Ron would tease me about Ron’s flamboyance and how he would turn every conversation into one about him or as he would say in his own unique words:
“I am going to read them”
My male friends are what we call a “Man’s Man” in today’s society. They are in law enforcement, business or in their own startup companies. How did I explain Ron? In my younger years I took a lot of ribbing from these guys when they used to say to me:
“you sure Ron and your wife are not more than friends?”
Over the years with Ron, learning political correctness on my end was part of the process. Many years ago, I introduced Ron to New York One News (NY1 News) colleagues Claire Brinberg and Andrew Kirtzman as “this is my gay friend Ron.” Everyone was astonished and made a joke out of my quote “introduction.” Ron would let everybody know that he was gay. That he and Marilyn were the best of friends because he could be himself around her. Ron did not have it easy in life. Simply because of his sexual orientation, Ron’s own family from Louisiana had rejected him. Ron’s father worked for the United States Postal Service, and his mother was a nurse. Ron felt stifled all his life. Ron and I would talk about his relationship with his family, and it pained him terribly. He was one of four males. That was one of the reasons he went into the military to prove that even though he was gay that he could be as much of a man as any other male. My friend Ron spent a good deal of his life seeking approval. Ron was in search of another family and that’s when he found Marilyn.
For all the trouble Ron caused he had a heart of gold, and would do anything to help his friends. Ron Johnson was the definition of loyal. When I decided on only a few hours’ notice to paint the nursery blue for my first child’s birth, Ron was there to help me paint. Only for Ron and I to be told a few weeks later that the doctor made a mistake. We thought it was going to be a boy, and instead we were having a girl. Ron decided that we needed no more surprises, so we painted the room yellow. A neutral color for whatever the sex turned out to be. Ron was always there, with his opinion. No matter what.
How about the time when I had an assignment in Philadelphia and wanted my family near? Ron was always by Marilyn’s side to make sure that my family arrived safely. One time when I had to travel to broadcast live from a national political convention in Chicago, Ron made the trip to Illinois being with my family when I had to work 16 hour days. Ron was the one who went to the park and pushed my children on the swings.
I will always remember one of the many funny stories for Ron and I. Ron was at my side when Marilyn and her mother went out one time. We had to figure out how to change my daughter Courtney’s diaper for the very first time. I remember this as if it was yesterday. I was sitting reading the newspaper and taking notes for work. Ron’s in a clownish voice said:
“Oh, Dominic I think Courtney did a number two.”
I looked at him and he stared at me laughing. I reminded him that Marilyn and her mother left both of us to watch the baby. Without all the particulars here after two tries we finally got it right even though one side of the diaper was lopsided. I said it would just have to do. Ron on the other hand responded:
“Miss Boo” is going to kill us. ‘Miss Boo’ was Ron’s pet name for Marilyn. Ron had a pet name for my wife and I did not.
Ron had been introduced to the Carter family during a Christmas Celebration at the home of my wife’s family. Too know Ron, meant that you had to prepare people for let’s say his exuberance. My street-smart mother and Aunt Inez felt that they could handle anything in life, so certainly Ron would not be a problem. Heck, they were part of a motorcycle riding group in their younger years. Ron hearing about my family from myself and Marilyn was ready for an inquisition. He wanted to know more about the Carter’s and whether they were worthy of “Miss Boo.”
Ron asked such questions as to what type of child I was. Were there any behavioral issues. How did I do in school and what I wanted out of life? He would take it upon himself to approve whether this family was worthy of his “Miss Boo.”
That was Ron. After several cocktails and a laundry list of questions that often ended in laughter, Ron gave his seal of approval.
But in true Ron Johnson form, he indicated he would be watching everyone’s’ actions because some of the answers he thought were” shady.” Dripping in sweat after this “question and answer” period Ron would often say “Miss Boo I need a cocktail after dealing with the Carter’s.”
I have traveled the world, but Ron taught me the art of fine dining. He loved to eat out and took Marilyn and myself to the eating treasures of New York City. Places where the real connoisseurs of New York eateries were found. At the end of a meal he would often say “Dominic get the check.” However, Ron was always generous. Money to him had no value.
When he had it, he spent it and then would come around and say, “Miss Boo” tell your husband I need funds.
Not really being a drinker Ron taught my wife the art of fine wine. As for his cooking, somehow Marilyn and I always took a little taste as not to offend him, but we always begged off a dinner date in which Ron cooked. Ron was famous for his New Orleans Shrimp Gumbo on New Year’s Eve. He prepared for days. It was the only meal that I would eat because I found it to be better than the fried pork chops cooked in a ton of butter that he loved and would eat all the time. Marilyn recalls this was the first meal that Ron prepared for her in college. She had never had pork chops fried in butter. Crisco oil perhaps, but not butter. She told Ron to bag it up for her. One would expect after cooking with so much butter that Ron’s impending death would be from high cholesterol and an eventual heart attack. But that was Ron. He always defied expectations.
You see eventually I warmed up to Ron Johnson and welcomed him for who he was. Eccentric, a show off and a know it all. Yet when Ron became ill and could not travel as often, I missed him greatly. It was hard to watch my friend of, so many years slowly die. I knew that my friend Ron Johnson would protect my family with his life.
Ron’s relationship with his family was civil at best. His parents were elderly and never tolerated his gay lifestyle. It was up to the Carters and other friends such as Deborah Pointer who worried about his health, spoke to doctors and who were in communication with his only living brother. Ron although ill, he had enough energy to watch my TV political show and of course critique it. Always the critic he often told me how I could have made things better with my performance.
Love you Ron.
Marilyn and I will do the hustle in your honor.
I would not break down emotionally again over my friend Ron until my daughter’s wedding. I made it through walking Courtney down the aisle. I made it through the father-daughter dance, but the tears flowed when Courtney at the ceremony lit a candle for love ones that were no longer alive. I had no idea she would do it. She started by mentioning my beloved grandmother that raised me, Anna Pearl Carter….and then Courtney said Ron’s name. Ron would have loved to have attended Courtney’s wedding. After all he practically helped raise her and Dominic Jr.
Folks please do not make the mistake I did. Give them the flowers while they can still smell them.