He would show up on the sidewalk of the abortion facility at seemingly random times, but I always appreciated when Bill Johnson appeared there.
Selfishly, I missed his wife, Roberta, who passed away from cancer in Nov. 2010, and seeing him connected me back to this dear soul who’d been such a beautiful example of motherhood to me.
Her death especially haunted me, mainly because it came too soon, as death often does. Additionally, there were still Johnson children at home to raise, and it seemed unfair that someone so thoroughly a mother would be called away at such a crucial point in her family’s lives.
Bill stepped up to the plate with little complaint. While I didn’t know him as well as his beloved, I sensed a spiritual strength in him that gave me the confidence he’d manage the new mission.
When his youngest daughter, Julia, was selected to give the student talk at the 2015 March for Life—the year Shanley High School was asked to carry the lead banner—I could feel her mother’s prayers buoying her up, and her father’s, too.
While I cannot make a fair account of how well Bill did in fathering solo in the end, the day after his unexpected death on May 2, Julia wrote a Facebook post honoring her dad, offering some pointed evidence.
Now a mother herself, Julia thanked her father for being her first love, “responding to my heart with such empathy and gentleness as I grew into a woman,” and showing her that “a man should be gentle, sacrificial, a strong hold, and a faith leader in his family.”
“By modeling these virtues, I have found the best husband and am raising my own little ladies to look for the same,” she said. “Thank you for being the husband who loved his wife beyond compare; you loved mom through cancer and death, and you raised five children with her intercession.”
She mentioned his dedication in helping those with addiction and substance abuse issues, and “making all of those who go unseen and unwanted feel like the most precious individuals in the room,” and “for always calling me your most beautiful lady, and showering me with positivity and joy.”
Nodding to his example as a grandfather of 11, Julia said, “You truly are a river to your family,” noting that he led her to Christ constantly by example.
The photo she placed in the post shows Bill at her wedding, kneeling in a pew, alone, his head bowed. I picture Roberta beside him. Both were pro-life warriors, through their volunteer work, parenting, and every facet of their lives.
It’s often said in such a time that we should be careful not to canonize anyone; that is the Church’s work. But those blessed to have known the Johnsons would likely agree that, through their sacrificial love, we’ve been given a fine example of what it is to seek after Christ.
As Father Vincent Miller said at Bill’s funeral at St. Joseph’s in Moorhead, Minn., he would often show up in the most unusual of places, “wearing shorts and long socks,” or in his children’s voicemail, with messages like, “Hello, it’s me. I’m your dad.”
Bill once shared with him about his and Roberta’s relationship, and how none of her friends at the Catholic Worker House in San Antonio, where they met, wanted her to marry him. “I was older, I was a rambling spirit, and they didn’t see fatherhood in me,” he’d shared.
Though law school and time as a Jesuit missionary didn’t suit him, either, Bill finally realized, “You have to listen to God and find out where he’s calling you to.” He did, and it seems God was calling Bill to ask Roberta to marry him, despite what her friends thought.
“And when you do that,” Father Miller said, “and God combines the right two people, he takes the best of each and makes children and grandchildren. And then you teach the simple lessons,” as did Bill. Lessons like: “Leave something behind.” “Be willing to go through life empty-handed.” “Love the ones you are with, all the time.” And, finally, “Point to something ahead of us. If we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall live with him.”
Perhaps Roberta’s Texas friends didn’t quite see what God did, but it seems in hindsight that Bill not only became a fitting mate to her, but an exceptional one, and a consummate father.
Thanks, Bill, for showing up on the sidewalk to encourage us. We already miss you, and know your children do, too. May you now feel the warm embrace of our heavenly Father.
[Note: I write about my experiences praying for the end to abortion at the sidewalk abutting the Red River Valley’s lone abortion facility for New Earth magazine — the official news publication of the Fargo Diocese. I hope you find “Sidewalk Stories” helpful in understanding the truth about abortion and how it plays out tragically in our corner of the world. The preceding ran in New Earth’s June 2023 issue.]