MANKATO – A mentor to a legion of lawyers in the area, Calvin Johnson was popular with a large section of the legal community thanks to his passion for clients and his pleasant manner.
“He’s always put his heart and soul into cases. He didn’t see it as a job or a calling to be a lawyer. It was really his passion, ”said Allen Eskens, a retired attorney and writer who met Johnson 30 years ago when Eskens came to Mankato.
Johnson died on January 20 at the age of 65 after an extended battle with cancer.
Johnson’s passion for his clients, especially clients with long-term cases, got him in the national and international media spotlight at least twice.
He represented farmer Herb Saunders, who was tried in the early 1990s for gross offense in practicing medicine without a license. Saunders used colostrum – or a cow’s first milk – to treat diseases in humans.
In 2009, Johnson again gained international attention when he represented the parents of Daniel Hauser, 13, from Sleepy Eye.
Hauser was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma in childhood. After one round, he stopped chemotherapy and his parents opted for alternative treatments. The problem ended in court because doctors said his cancer was very curable with treatment.
“He was always ready to tip windmills,” said defense attorney Brad Peyton, who had known Johnson for 25 years. “Whenever someone came to him with a heartfelt story, he always took her case. He’s always been like that. “
Peyton said he learned a lot about the law from Johnson and especially watched him when one of Johnson’s clients was convicted.
“He could tear a tear in your eye. He always made sure he understood his clients and that the judge understood them and that people understood that the person next to him was a person, not just a client, ”Peyton said.
Cora Haman, who Johnson hired as a paralegal in 2008, said he was both a mentor and one of her best friends.
“He told me we were kindred spirits. But I think he had a lot of kindred spirits. He was able to connect on a personal level with almost everyone he met. I’ve seen him do this with clients, attorneys and jurors, ”she said.
Johnson was the first formal principal defender in the district and hired current principal defender Scott Kutcher in 1990. Kutcher said Johnson always found the lovable quality in everyone.
“We work with people who are dealing with the worst time in their life. Calvin could always find a silver lining in people that most people couldn’t find. He was a sweet, very caring guy. “
Jim Kuettner, who had known Johnson for the past few years and bought Johnson’s practice in 2017 when Johnson retired, said his style was always on display.
“He was the nicest guy you have ever met. He would pick up bugs in his hand and throw them outside instead of killing them. That was just his philosophy of life, ”said Kuettner.
Brown County District Judge Robert Docherty met Johnson more than 20 years ago when Docherty was a young criminal attorney.
“He was always very helpful. He’s been really helpful in customer relationships – it’s not enough to do the work for your customer, your customer needs to know you are doing the job, and someone in their corner is fighting for them. He was always careful that they knew someone was going to hit for them. “
After Docherty became a judge in 2012, Johnson faced a few cases.
“He won some and lost some, as is usual. When you see an old friend and you have to say, “You are wrong,” it is difficult. But he never took anything personally, he was never upset about it, ”said Docherty.
Aside from his legal counseling, a group of friends and lawyers had annual trips to Johnson’s family cabin on Lake Ada near Pine River to fish, play poker, and relax from work stress.
“Here we broke away from the real world, a hidden universe,” said Peyton.
“Cal and I would often wake up a day early and just sit by the lake, watch the waves, and play cribbage. It would just be quiet and we would sit there and not really talk about anything. “
The group, Peyton said, watched their children grow up, and then grandchildren. “No matter what legal accolades he had, he never considered anything close to the pride and joy he had from grandchildren.”
The Ada Lake cabin will also be Johnson’s final resting place. This summer his ashes will be buried there with his first wife, Jane Marie Brennan, who died 30 years ago.