A Farewell to a Friend

By Jason Jones

Special to The Messenger

“I love you brother.” 

“I love you too.”

These are words not to be thrown about casually, but were words I exchanged regularly with my friend Will Johnson. They were buried among the last texts I exchanged with him last week, not knowing there would be no more. Saturday morning I answered a call from his wife Christy. She tearfully explained that he had passed overnight while I tearfully sat in disbelief. To say the days that followed have been difficult would be an understatement of epic proportions.

For more than four decades I have been blessed to call Will my friend. We used the term ‘brother’ a lot. There were plenty of reasons. We ran in the same circles in high school. We were both Army veterans. We worked closely together for a time at the Messenger, where he was a huge influence on my writing style. All of these things are grounds for using the term, but it may have originated in another place.

Sandra Richardson was a legend in Grapeland. She was an amazing teacher and librarian at Grapeland High School. If GHS had a Hall of Fame, an entire wing would surely be named for her. 

Sandra was also a mom. Not only to her own wonderful children, Renee, David, Brian and Sean, but also to a whole gaggle of Grapeland kids, myself and Will included, who regularly gathered at her home. She referred to us all as her kids and we called her Mom. It was a genuine family and I inherited many brothers because of it.

Will Johnson was the fun brother. I don’t recall ever seeing him without a smile on his face, though that usually indicated he was up to a little tomfoolery. Practical jokes and stunts were his calling card, some of which are still talked about today… like the time he filled the hallway at GHS with freshly-raked leaves. The beauty of his shenanigans was that he did so much. School officials thought he couldn’t possibly be responsible for all of it, so a lot of his crimes went into the ‘unsolved’ folder. Brilliant.

Will was also a man of unique talents back in the day. He was proud to have counted and noted exactly how many times the stop light in town flashed in a minute. Through careful calculation he could also tell you how many flashes occurred in an hour, a day, a week or a year. He was also widely renowned as a prolific air saxophonist, which he displayed with unmatched style every time the radio played Foreigner’s ‘Urgent.’

During his time at the Messenger, Will became rather famous for injecting humor into his stories and headlines. In his farewell column in July of 2022 he wrote “Before I go any further, there’s something you should know, if you don’t already. When a story allowed for it, I always tried to inject a little humor into the mix. Either through musical or pop culture references, I tried to have fun. None of the headlines or stories were written with malice and quite a few wound up being cut.”

But everything wasn’t humorous. Will covered so many facets of life in East Texas and did so accurately and with compassion. He was an award-winning writer as well as a friend to the community, and it showed in his work.

In a particularly poignant farewell tribute to former Messenger Publisher Tom Nicol, Will detailed his struggles during the early days of his journalism career. He explained how Mr. Nicol took a chance on him during what he called the lowest point in his life and how difficult reporting was for him.

“I had tried to quit three times in less than six months, but Tom Nicol would not let me. For that, I am forever in his debt.”

Over the course of nearly twelve years and 10,000 articles, Will Johnson made a positive difference in East Texas.

While I am so deeply saddened to have lost my friend, as have so many others who loved him, he would be upset with me if I spent much time dwelling on that sadness. On that note, I will end this with one more short story.

In 2015 Will and I, along with Kenn Brown, were groomsmen for Sean Richardson’s wedding to his beautiful wife Cheryl. I never really pay attention to people’s height unless it’s well out of the ordinary, like Shaq or the guy who played Mini Me, so it never registered how I looked standing next to Sean, Will and Kenn. All three of them were in the 5’6 to 5’7 range. I am 6’2 and usually carry around 250 pounds on my frame.

Everything went fine. It was a beautiful wedding with a wonderful reception afterward. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary… until the photos arrived.

My reaction was “Good lord… am I that big?” 

Will was more to the point: “We look like a hunting party who went out and bagged a sasquatch!”

Will had found his groove over the past few years. After marrying the love of his life, he was finally able to return to his first love, teaching at his old stomping grounds at Grapeland ISD. He told me many times how happy he was, and as he prepared for his heart surgery, he said it felt like he was getting a new lease on life. His absence will leave a hole that is hard to fill.

It feels like there is so much more to say, but I will close with the best that I can do: 

‘I love you brother.’

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