Former County Supervisor Paul Johnson passes
Former Dickinson County Supervisor Paul Johnson passed away late last month. He was described as a hard worker who provided great service to the county. (Photo by Seth Boyes)
By Seth Boyes - News Editor
A memorial service for former Dickinson County Supervisor Paul Johnson is expected to be held in the Spirit Lake at a later date this year. Johnson passed away Dec. 29, 2021, at the age of 89.
The former research director at Berkley and Company applied his expertise to a wide array of projects in his time — from fishing line capable of glowing in the depths of the ocean to an adhesive used on the cone of a space-race era missile. Johnson passed away in Iowa City, 10 days shy of his 90th birthday.
Dickinson County Supervisor chair Bill Leupold described Johnson as a good board member and a hard worker.
"Paul was a valuable asset to this board and Dickinson County because of his scientific knowledge," Leupold said.
Leupold said Johnson was instrumental in helping the board address issues and questions in the summer of 2018, when waste materials from an oil spill near the city of Doon were to be placed in the privately owned Dickinson County Landfill. Some members of the board as well as the general public were concerned the oils and other chemicals might leech into the local chain of lakes on which the region heavily depends. Johnson also held great interest in the work of the Silver Lake Park Improvement Association as the group strove to improve water quality in Silver Lake during Johnson's final term — the efforts continue today.
"He was always concerned about the environment in the Lakes Area, and it was a well-placed concern," Leupold said. "He was also concerned about educational opportunities for our young people."
Johnson said during a 2019 interview that he had at one time hoped to convert Spirit Lake's Mahannah Auditorium into a career center for high school graduates and others seeking a change in employment. The former county supervisor said many graduating seniors leave the Lakes Area to seek careers elsewhere, which he felt was affecting the area's economic growth. Johnson said, while a number of the area's major employers expressed interest in the idea, the overall cost of converting the building was prohibitive. More recently, the building has been purchased by a private developer who may convert the property to residential housing.
THE ROAD TO IOWA
Johnson was born in early 1932 in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, and would go on to attend the University of Wisconsin. His father passed away during Johnson's freshman year of college, bringing the young student home to care for his mother and potentially halting his studies.
He said some of the jobs he took at that time were fairly risky but paid more than a typical daily wage. For a time, he did sewer construction work, where he at times contended with ditch fires and the possibility of being buried alive.
"I did on occasion get buried up to my chest," Johnson recalled. "I never got covered to my head."
The young Johnson continued taking courses through the university's extension office and eventually earned his degree in the early 1950s. He would go on to take a job developing artificial graphite systems for the steel industry.
"I found myself in among the steel furnaces — molten steel — in temperatures so hot my clothes were literally smoking," he recalled.
He would go on to develop an adhesive to be used by NASA's famed scientist Wernher Von Braun and his team, as they tested a graphite missile cone. Johnson never visited Von Braun's facility — he said his contributions were by phone and by mail. Johnson said that work opened the door to his developing artificial skin for veteran amputees.
He continued to explore polymer chemistry, which eventually led him to a research position at the Parker Pen Company's laboratory in Janesville, Wisconsin — developing the fiber tips many ballpoint pens use today and even creating a formula for man-made marble. Johnson recalled he had at one point believed he'd work at the company for the rest of his days, but he got a tip from an acquaintance, saying he should look into a company which had recently advertised in Modern Plastics Magazine.
That company was Berkley & Co. of Spirit Lake.
IN PURSUIT OF INNOVATION
Johnson applied for the job at Berkley's and got a phone call from the company's late founder and former U.S. Rep. Berkley Bedell several weeks later, inviting him to tour the plant.
"I told my wife I could see a huge amount of growth potential," Johnson said. "Right then, they had about 90 employees, and their sales were just a few million dollars. I said I could see that company really blooming and mushrooming."
The company continued to grow and exists today as Pure Fishing — still headquartered in Spirit Lake. Johnson recalled that within his first week at Berkley's, Bedell took him on a tour of a warehouse full of failed experiments. Johnson said he initially thought Bedell might be aiming for his new hire to solve each conundrum, but instead the local business owner told him the tour was to encourage him to make his own share of mistakes in pursuing the right solution.
"He was my mentor," Johnson said. "We did remarkable things."
By 1973, Johnson and his team had developed an approach to florescent fishing line they felt would circumvent a 1961 patent from competitor DuPont. The Dupont line was said to glow above the water but not below, while Berkley's line was capable of both, Johnson said. A lawsuit was filed, and Johnson became a certified scuba diver in order to photograph the competing products at significant depths.
It turned out both products glowed underwater.
Johnson went on several ocean dives at greater and greater depths — at one point diving near the island of Antigua with the eldest son of French explorer Jacques Cousteau and fending off a lemon shark.
"I could see the size of his teeth, that's how close he was," Johnson recalled.
Eventually, a 150-foot dive was scheduled near the island of San Salvador.
"My life expectancy there at 150 feet was about 180 seconds," Johnson said. "I said, 'If something happens, I'm dead.'"
Johnson said he was sure to make his last confession before leaving for the dive, just in case something should happen, and he recalled the priest asking him why he would take such a risk with a young family at home.
"I said, 'We have 450 people at the plant here in town. Berkeley Bedell tells me if we lose that patent the business will be put out of business and there will be 450 people looking for jobs. I've got to do it,'" Johnson said.
The photos from 150 feet showed both strands were still glowing. Johnson said Dupont's patent was rendered invalid by the court, and Berkley's won the case.
A TRANSITION TO POLITICS
Johnson's family said he was never one to settle down after retirement. At 70-years-old, he threw his hat in the 2003 race for Dickinson County Board of Supervisors, as the board was set to expand from three district seats to five — he won with about 65 percent of the vote in that race. The board soon took on the task of funding the creation of a new county courthouse, which he said was one of his proudest achievements. The previous courthouse had been built in 1891 and was facing condemnation after the state fire marshal cited it with non-compliance in 1996.
Johnson said previous boards had always presented the project as a total cost — $9.5 million, $8 million or $6.5 million — which he felt was seen as daunting to voters. The new approach broke the matter down to what he called "the working man's budget," to show a property assessed at $100,000 would pay 10 cents per day for the project. Johnson recalled fliers to that affect being posted, which he said was a turning point in the courthouse campaign.
"That was not an engineering thing," Johnson said. "That was a creativity thing. My history as I look back on my whole professional career has been problem-solving and creativity."
More than two-thirds of the public approved the board's proposed $14.9 million bond in September of 2003, and a groundbreaking ceremony was held in August of 2004. The project was completed in 2008 — about $600,000 under budget, Johnson once added.
Johnson sought reelection in 2018, but was defeated by current Dickinson County Supervisor Kim Wermersen during that year's primary. Johnson stepped down from his seat at the end of the term, having served some 15 years on the board.
Wermersen said Monday he was sad to learn of Johnson's passing.
"He gave great service for many years to Dickinson County, and I'm one of those people who really appreciated what he gave," Wermersen said.