Sunday, June 29, 2008

Paying Our Respects to Uncle Gary Johnson

Kori and I both have ties to central Illinois. Kori’s mother Pam (Puma) lived in Illinois and continued to do so as she attended Illinois Wesleyan University (IWU), and she met Bill while they were working together in Illinois. Kori attended IWU, living there (Bloomington-Normal) while school was in session. My mother and her two brothers were raised in Peoria, and my maternal grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins all lived in the area and stayed in Illinois until recently. Uncle Ron and Aunt Kathi still live in the Peoria area, while everyone else has scattered. Even my sister’s husband has sisters, nieces, and nephews who live in Mendota, which isn't too far away.

We have made a few trips to Illinois over the last several years for funerals and weddings and to see relatives. In 2004, in the middle of a trip to northern California to see Kori’s youngest sister compete in Junior Miss, we flew out to attend my grandmother’s funeral in Peoria in a whirlwind visit that included an hour with the Johnsons in Bloomington-Normal and a night in Mendota. In May of 2005, we took a longer, more relaxed trip so that Kori could be a bridesmaid in sorority sister Kelly’s wedding, and we took the opportunity to visit the Johnsons and Bloomington-Normal, the IWU campus, and my relatives in Peoria. In June of 2006, we had a short trip to Peoria for my grandfather’s funeral.

This time, we went back for a funeral. Gary Johnson, D.D.S., was “Uncle Gary” to Kori, though not actually an uncle through marriage or birth. As the story goes, Pam was living in Illinois and decided to attend IWU. She and Chris (short for Christine) ended up being sorority house roommates, and became best friends. Thus, Chris became “Aunt Chris”. While in school, she started dating local football hero, frat boy, and dentist’s son, Gary, whom she married. Pam was the Maid of Honor.

Gary and Chris raised 5 children – Marnie, Gary Shaun, Ashleigh, Tyler, and Dylan, and were surrogate parents to Kori while she was attending IWU. Uncle Gary and Aunt Chris made it out to California for both our wedding and Kendra & Steve’s which was less than a year later.

Word came last Monday that Uncle Gary had passed away suddenly and quietly in his sleep. It was unexpected as he was still relatively young. Coincidentally, Pam & Bill had been there for a weekend visit, so they changed their plans to return to California in order to stay in Bloomington-Normal for Aunt Chris and the family. Kori planned out our trip, reserving the flights, hotel, and rental car.

Wednesday morning, Kendra and Steve dropped the three of us off at the Long Beach airport for our flight to Chicago – or rather, they rode with us in our minivan and drove it off, taking Shelby to the vet to be boarded.

The airport is a tiny one by LAX or O’Hare standards, but it does have honest-to-goodness major air carriers. Jet Blue flies out of Long Beach, and we like their cheap rates, leg room, and entertainment, which helps the flight go by faster. Fortunately, we had a non-stop flight. Jet Blue now sells headphones instead of giving them out… but the price is only a dollar and the headphones are standard in that you can use them with your own electronic devices. So, you can bring your own to help you enjoy your choice of XM radio or Direct TV channels. Don’t expect pillows or blankets.

Traveling with a baby or toddler is no fun. Fortunately, Keelie is generally very well behaved (at least, according to what other people tell us), though when she gets bored she snatches our glasses from our face and tugs on our earphones. The biggest hassle is getting through security, because you have to take off your shoes, put everything on the conveyer belt, hold the toddler, break down the stroller/car seat combo, and then they have to examine the stroller separately because it is too big for the scanner. Meanwhile, if one of you is pulled off to the side because you set off the metal detector, that leaves the other person to collect everything, including the stroller, while shoeless and holding a toddler. The stroller/car seat combo gets checked at the gate, which is good because it doesn’t count as a carry-on and it can be used up until boarding.

As it turned out, our flight’s departure was delayed for over an hour as there was weather hold-up in Chicago. We would allow Keelie to walk around the waiting area as we closely followed her, keeping her from most perils.

We had an uneventful flight to Chicago, save a dirty diaper.

From the airport, it was a two-hour-plus drive to the Bloomington-Normal area, with much comfort from the warm sticky weather, thanks to the air conditioning.

The viewing for Uncle Gary had started at 3pm and was still going strong after 8pm, when we arrived. Clearly, Uncle Gary was a very loved, respected, and admired man. He had taken over his father’s dentistry practice, serving an area in which he had lived all of his life, save dental school. Being the guy that he was, father, local boy, football hero, and supporter of local causes, he had made a lot of friends in the area.

We made our way to check in at our hotel from there.

After the services Thursday morning, everyone headed to the Johnson home. With so many people wanting to be there (I did mention that he was loved, respected, and admired), everyone parked in a large nearby parking lot and members of the football team shuttled people to the home, a beautiful place on a private road. Uncle Gary was the “team dentist” for these boys and a huge general supporter, so they were there paying their respects.

The home, inside and outside, was packed. Biaggi's, a local Italian restaurant in which the Johnsons invested, catered with a seemingly endless supply of delicious food. (There are barely 20 Biaggis now – they are taking a slow-growth approach to preserve company control and the quality of the dining experience.)

People traded stories about Gary’s antics and generosity. Slideshows and videos played in different rooms.

We stayed as long as we could, until there were only a handful of people sticking around.

Friday, Kori’s sorority sister Kelly drove down with her 5 week old baby boy Jonathan to meet us at our hotel and join us for lunch at Steak & Shake. Steak & Shake is a must whenever we are in an area that actually has them. Cracker Barrel usually is, too, but we just didn’t have time for it this trip. Steak & Shake originated in Bloomington-Normal.

Later, we dropped in to see the Johnsons again for a little while.

Saturday, we were able to drop in on the Johnsons again, bringing Gondolas from Avanti’s and getting our fix of that other local must-do food place. Kori needed their pizza bread. She probably would have kneaded it, too, if they would have let her. We couldn’t stay at the Johnson’s long, though, because we had to make it back to Chicago for our flight.

As it turned out, the weather delayed our flight again. As we were waiting at the gate, it even hailed. The weather had been so good for the whole drive in, but it didn’t hold up. Our plane wasn’t able to land, and with fuel running low, they pulled up and went to Peoria, which I’m sure was probably the destination for some of the passengers to begin with. It took a while for the refueled airplane to get clearance from Chicago to take off from Peoria to fly to Chicago, thus our flight was delayed for something like 3 hours. (Jet Blue handed out water and comped drinks and the in-flight movies and headsets to make up for it.)

While waiting at the gate, and in between following Keelie on her toddler adventures, we talked with a couple next to us and found out that the gentleman also works for Los Angeles County and had worked under my father, and that they were in law school together. They were great in helping to pass the time and in keeping Keelie entertained.

Keelie fell asleep as we stood in line waiting to board, but she awoke not long after we sat down – quite a short nap for a very tired girl.

The plane touched down in Long Beach after 11pm, and after the curfew for the airport – they had to ask for permission to do so. Kendra and Steve were kind enough to greet us with our minivan.

It was nice to see the Johnsons again, although we were sad that it was to say goodbye to Uncle Gary. They were so sweet and gracious and Keelie was happy to meet them. They told us how munch Uncle Gary loved us, and we hope they could tell it was mutual. There was no need to swing by Peoria – Uncle Ron and Aunt Kathi are the only close family members left there, and they were out here in California during our time in Illinois. Go figure! (Okay, technically cousin Jeff and Anna are still in the Peoria area, but they're getting ready to move and so we let them be.)


Heather said...

Ken & Kori - I am sorry for you loss ~ its always hard to loose someone so close and dear!

On a different note ~ you'll have to let me know the next time you're in town ~ we're in Champaign which is only about a 45 - 60 min drive ~ would LOVE to meet at Steak & Shake (my HighLife in the midwest)....and how small of our world do we live in that you would meet someone that went to law school & worked with your dad? Weird!

Again, my both your hearts heel quickly!


Irene said...

Uncle Gary sounds like he was a really nice man. So sorry to hear about all this.

But, my goodness, what an adventure. I do not live very far from the Long Beach Airport. I love that it still has the small town look to it. You're lucky they got permission to land after curfew. A lot of Long Beach close by residents really put up a stink about curfews being broken.

I love Jet Blue. I wish they flew direct to Orlando. My daughter and I are hoping to go to WDW next Spring (all things being equal with the economy and raising prices and all) and frankly I am not looking forward to the plane part of the trip. Such a shame. Flying used to be such fun.

Kori and Ken Pellman said...


I heard you about the direct-to-Orlando wish. We once flew from Long Beach to JFK (New York) to Orlando!