Vern Johnson has to be one of the most recognizable people on Siesta Key.
For years, Johnson’s friendly face has been one of the first tourists see as they walk into the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce. He has helped more people than he can count book hotel rooms, find just the right restaurant or learn more about an upcoming event.
A native of Green Bay, Wis., Johnson earned both undergraduate and graduate degrees from Marquette University. During an internship in 1953, he met his future wife, Joan. While they were dating, Johnson was drafted into the U.S. Army and assigned to a unit in Germany. In 1956, Joan flew to Germany, and they were married.
Following his military service, Johnson worked for 35 years in sales and management for the National Cash Register Company. A company assignment brought him to Sarasota in late 1978. That was when he discovered the Key.
In 1990, Johnson retired from NCR. He and his wife began dividing their time between Madison, Wis., and Siesta Key. During each six-month stretch on the Key, they played tennis and golf and made many friends.
Thirteen years ago, Joan died, and Johnson began making solitary visits to the Key.
“I started looking for something constructive to do,” Johnson says.
He decided to enroll in Sarasota County’s Civics 101 course, which taught him how local government works. After completing the course, Johnson decided to start volunteering for various organizations. The chamber work quickly became his favorite.
“I wanted to give something back to the community, because I live here,” he says. “This was a great fit. I live 10 minutes from the chamber (office), and I got to know the Key like the back of my hand.”
In the past seven years, Johnson has taken on even more responsibilities. He volunteers in the office every Thursday afternoon and helps head up volunteer efforts for the Fourth of July fireworks, the annual Sandfest fundraiser and the chamber’s golf tournament.
In 2009, the chamber honored Johnson fby presenting him with the Sharon Cunningham Volunteer of the Year Award.
For the past six years, Johnson also has been volunteering with a Tampa-based organization called Life Link, which educates people about organ donations.
He took a keen interest in Life Link, he says, because he lost one of his five daughters in 1978, when she was only 15.
“(Patti) was very healthy and athletic,” Johnson says. “One night she came home and said she had a headache. We rushed her to the hospital and found out she had a broken blood vessel in her brain stem. She went into a coma. At the time, transplantation was relatively new, but by the time she was declared brain dead, there was nothing to donate except the corneas of her eyes.”
At 80, Johnson steadfastly says he has no plans to sit back and put up his feet.
“My life has been really, really good, and I want to give back to the community as much as I can,” Johnson says.
Chuckling, he adds, “They will have to carry me out of here.”
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