RIP Grantland Johnson, 1948-2014

Jeff vonKaenel

Former Sacramento City Council member, Sacramento County supervisor, regional director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and California Secretary of Health and Human Services Grantland Lee Johnson died last week.

But the several hundred people gathered at Antioch Progressive Church on Saturday were there not to celebrate the officeholder, but the man. A very special man.

The prince of Del Paso Heights. A 5-foot-3-inch star athlete who played baseball and football. A mentor for both the powerful and the powerless. A public official who was willingly arrested at political demonstrations. A dedicated family man.

Gathered at the church were dozens of Johnson’s high-school and elementary-school friends who grew up with him in “the Heights.” They played football with him, were on the debating team with him and were part of his life for half-a-century, until the end of his life.

Also gathered at the church were the Sacramento progressive political elite who also clearly loved Johnson. Phil Serna, Phil Isenberg, Bill Camp, Kimberly Mueller and others spoke. They all told different stories, but they all had the same theme: Grantland Johnson was special.

A high-school friend who is now a minister, Alan Rowe, said that as a young boy he wanted to be like Johnson. That is why he joined the high-school debate team. Johnson’s high-school friends as well as his political colleagues all wanted to be more like him.

I too wanted to be more like Johnson. As a Sacramento Habitat for Humanity board member, I was organizing Habitat home builds and encouraging different religious groups to come together to provide the money and labor to build a house. We would match up Latter-day Saints with Sikhs, or Trinity Episcopal Church with the Center for Praise Ministries. I unsuccessfully tried to get Republican and Democratic legislators to do a house together. As part of this effort, I met Johnson, then California secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, who oversaw tens of thousands of employees with an approximately $50 billion or so budget.

He jumped at the idea of having state employees build Habitat houses. He said the houses would be a monument to their commitment to public service. He set up a lunch meeting at his office for the other appointed secretaries so I could make a presentation on the project. Three houses were built, but the project was cut short after Gov. Davis’ recall. This is just an example of one of thousands of small, wonderful things that Johnson did.

Grantland Johnson was a special person. He was dedicated, loving, and had less ego and was more present than most people I know. When talking with him, not only would I get good information, but he also let me spend some time in his world. A world I would love to live in.

Johnson’s high-school friends and his political friends want to be more like him. Count me in.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.