Rest in Peace Tom Johnson – The Call to Continue His Work

Last Saturday, on a beautiful June morning, family, friends and colleagues of Tom Johnson celebrated his remarkable life and important work at Our Lady of Lourdes in Minneapolis. Although attendance for Tom’s funeral was significantly limited due to COVID, Governor Walz, Lt. Governor Flanagan and Senator Klobuchar were all in attendance. After the funeral, which was livestreamed, Tom was laid to rest, on the Feast of St. Anthony, at St. Anthony Cemetery in Northeast Minneapolis. For a man who was an untiring voice for justice, I am heartened that the crown of righteousness awaits Tom and true peace, which is the fruit of justice.

For those who may not know who Tom was, here is his quick bio, which is challenging given Tom’s robust list of accomplishments. Tom grew up on a dairy farm in Northern Minnesota and later graduated from the U of M with a degree in science, followed by a JD in law. At 28, Tom was elected to the City Council of Minneapolis and later served as a three term County Attorney of Hennepin County. In 1989, Tom helped found the acclaimed Corner House which accompanies children who are victims of sexual abuse. After his service to Hennepin County, Tom obtained an LLM from the London School of Economics.

Tom entered private practice at the Gray Plant Mooty firm for a period but felt the pull back to public service. He headed up the Council for Crime and Justice for over a decade where, spurred by his leadership, CCJ examined the reality and attendant challenges of racial disparities in the Minnesota criminal justice system. Tom returned to private practice at GPM where he excelled. Tom capped off an extraordinary career as an advocate by accepting an appointment as the first ombudsperson for victims of clergy abuse. Tom approached all of his work with passion, high ethics, a preternatural sense of justice, a generous spirit and humility.

Although Tom poured himself out for others as an advocate, he deeply cherished his family and enjoyed, more than anything, the time he spent with Victoria, his spouse of 37 years, Jill, Ben, Hunter and Kayla and his grandchildren. Tom will be deeply missed by many – his memory and work are a blessing and an inspiration. I was so moved when it was announced that Victoria has succeeded Tom as ombudsperson and I look forward to working with Victoria and others to help foster greater healing in this archdiocese and our community.

I was honored to preach at Tom’s funeral, but found it exceedingly challenging to do so. Because of Tom’s prolific career and accomplishments, lessons to be learned from his life, as well as our shared connections, I could have preached for 30 – 45 minutes. Given COVID, the presence of the governor and not wanting the length of my homily to be deleterious to public health, I limited my remarks as much as I was able.

I was struck by the thoughtful eulogy given by David Lebedoff, a close friend of Tom and fellow law partner. David concentrated on Tom’s personal kindness and what an impact this had on others. My homily focused on Tom’s uncommon sense of justice, the generous service that marked Tom’s life and how he approached relationships. One strength that I did not mention was Tom’s sense of prudence – which, coupled with justice, was a powerful tour de force. Prudence, in the classical sense, is practical wisdom – determining the best means to accomplish a particular end or good. Tom was a master strategist and a man of great prudence.

For those of us who have collaborated with Tom in the various arenas in which he worked and advocated, it is up to us to continue his fight for justice. Tom has left us a clear roadmap in the way he lived his life, how he treated people, and in his determination and grit to never stop working until we get it right. Two significant areas of justice need much attention, respectively, in State and Church: the scourge of racial injustice that continues to afflict people of color in the United States and the need for greater accountability, transparency and healing in the Catholic Church. Tom was prophetic in both areas and untiring in his advocacy for getting it right. I feel personally inspired by Tom’s life and work and can think of no better way to honor Tom, than for those of us who value justice to carry on his important work.