Donald E. Johnson, retired Madison College professor, artist, and author, left the earthly realm on March 12, 2023, in Madison, surrounded by his loving family. During his storied life he was an athlete, a soldier, a photographer, a teacher, a coach, and an activist. He felt a lifelong connection to Filippo Brunelleschi, and like him, he followed passions far and wide.
Don was born in Austinville, Iowa, on May 24, 1936, to Margaret Johnson. He left rural Iowa after a childhood during which he excelled at sports, got a call up from the Chicago White Sox, but he got a more pressing call up from the Army Security Agency, where he served with distinction in Lubeck, Germany, among other duty stations. Upon returning Stateside, he attended the University of Iowa, obtained a B.A. in German Language, and a M.A. in Industrial and Product Design. During his time at Iowa, Don met the love of his life, Norma Johnson, and the two married on August 18, 1962, at the Salem Lutheran Church in Homewood, Illinois.
Don spent most of his professional career as an Art Instructor, beginning his teaching career as the Chairman of the Art Department at Ellsworth Community College, in Iowa Falls, Iowa, moving overseas to teach design at the Royal Academy of Art in the Hague, Netherlands, and retiring after 38 years as Head of the College Transfer Art Department at Madison College. His leisure time was spent photographing architecture around the world, which he parlayed into ownership of Johnson Architectural Images, through which he produced and sold architectural images for use by art libraries and publishers. Select images from his personal collection still hang in the UW Hospital and other buildings around Madison.
Outside of his artistic and academic career, Don played a significant role in the development of soccer in Madison. Local soccer club, Madison United, memorialized Don as foundational to the local soccer community. “Don was a large part of the growth of soccer in Madison during the 80s and early 90s. He started the men's soccer program at MATC; developed Reindahl park into a soccer field many of us played on; coached a youth team under Madison United and took those players all over the country and to Europe. Many of the older players in the city played for Don at one time in their soccer career. He also promoted Madison soccer throughout the region as we were not duly recognized by Milwaukee, Chicago, or Minneapolis for quality soccer.”
Don was a lifelong champion for fairness and truth, and to that end was involved with the Solidarity Singers at the Wisconsin State Capitol Building for many years. He participated in protests daily, and became known as “The Sign Guy”, combining graphic design and a sense of humor to create pieces protesting inequality, supporting labor, and shining a light on issues of public education funding, corporate greed, and the environment. His pieces were at the center of a controversy wherein legislative operatives stole signs they disagreed with, a pathetic and costly affront to free speech.
Like Brunelleschi, Don was a man of many passions. He loved grandparenting, enjoyed pet ownership, could and often would discuss with anyone education, art, architecture, photography, democracy, baseball, basketball, soccer, Badger athletics, and cars, new and old. Don was the author of four books: “A Wonderful Moment in Time”, “Ten Lives”, “Resist: Signs of Our Times”, and “The Martinique Diversion”. They span genres and disciplines like Brunelleschi spanned the nave of the cathedral of Florence - with aplomb and genius.
More than anything, Don loved his family. Don’s expression of this love and caring was sublime in its subtlety and steadfastness, but his light remained strong through the process of dying, and his family was blessed to be with him at the end. Don is survived by his wife of 63 years, Norma Johnson (née Johnson); his son, Tim Johnson (Anke); his daughter, Anne Saloma (Abraham); and the apples of his eye, his grandsons, Griffin and Felix.
True to form, Don requested no memorial service or funeral. To honor his wishes, his children will invite friends to a celebration of life this spring, which will likely take the form of a kegger as in olden soccer days.