Former Mayor and avid volunteer Ron Johnson died Monday night. He was 84.
Susan Phillips zoomed in on Ron Johnson when she needed an artist to serve as a celebrity bartender earlier this year for the Taste of the Key and Fashion Show.
He was best known as a former Longboat Key mayor and eight-year town commissioner.
But he was also an avid photographer. At 75, he’d resumed the passion for photography he’d developed as a teenager but didn’t pursue.
In typical Johnson fashion, he accepted the bartender-for-a-night gig at the Longboat Key Garden Club’s largest annual fundraiser without a splash of hesitation.
“Sure,” he told Phillips, who is president of the Garden Club and assistant to the town manager. “It sounds like fun.”
“He was out of his comfort zone probably,” Phillips said. “But he’s always a great sport, and he’s always willing to help out for anything.”
Johnson, of Bradenton and formerly of Longboat Key, died Monday night. He was 84.
When he was first elected to the commission in 1998 with 65% of the vote, he summed up why he ran for the commission on election night after votes were tabulated to the Longboat Observer.
“I’m sure I can make a significant difference on Longboat Key,” he said.
To see how Johnson made a difference, look at what got done in the town between 1998 and 2006.
Town Hall was renovated. The Public Safety Complex and Public Tennis Center were built.
There was a major dredging of the island’s waterways and canals.
The town created a website and streamlined its permitting.
Throughout all those projects, Johnson was one of the seven individuals at the dais working through the details during countless meetings.
But to see how Johnson made a difference on the Key, zoom out beyond Town Hall.
Look at the Longboat Key Center for the Arts. He was a volunteer and board member who coordinated the construction of a new building and the renovation of the campus.
Look at the Kiwanis Club of Longboat Key. He was a past president who co-chaired the group’s St. Jude luncheon (now the Longboat Key Gourmet Lawn Party) with his wife, Jinny.
And look at Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium. He held multiple leadership positions, including president of its volunteer organization of more than 1,200 members at the time, and also served as an adviser on key projects such as the Keating Marine Center.
“He was kind of the volunteer leader, and even after he wasn’t president people looked up to him,” said Kumar Mahadevan, president emeritus at Mote. “When we needed volunteers, he was always the guy who knew how to get the groups going.”
“He is the consummate volunteer who ‘rolls up his sleeves’ and works,” wrote former Mayor Joan Webster when she successfully nominated Johnson for the 2009 Kiwanis Citizen of the Year Award.
Born June 4, 1932, in Akron, Ohio, Johnson’s father was a manager at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.; his mother, a homemaker.
As a teen, he developed a love for photography, shooting with a twin-lens reflex camera.
After high school, he followed his father to Goodyear and spent four years training to become a journeyman die-maker.
It was his uncle who helped Johnson see his potential beyond a career at the tire company.
At 22, Johnson enrolled at Akron University, working days as a die-maker while taking classes at night to earn his business degree.
Johnson spent five years working in computer sales for IBM, then began working in the housing industry, rising to the role of president in various companies.
“No matter where he went, he always went to a leadership position,” said Johnson’s wife of 37 years, Jinny. “I think it was his kind-heartedness and his ability to bring consensus around any kind of situation.”
With a busy career and five daughters, Johnson had little time for volunteering or photography.
But after he and Jinny moved to Longboat Key in 1996, three years into retirement, Johnson got involved by becoming president of the Longbeach Village Association. He successfully ran for commission two years later at a neighbor’s urging.
On the commission, Johnson worked to look beyond Town Hall.
He built connections with other local governments, including both counties, according Webster, who was vice mayor during Johnson’s two years as mayor.
“He was really one of the first who started getting us involved with all the contingency agencies,” Webster said. “He attended a lot of meetings. I used to wonder if he ever stayed home. He knew it was important to know what was going on around us so we don’t make decisions in isolation.”
“It made communications between communities easier and better because we could learn about what did work from them and what did not,” said John Kerwin, who served on the commission for four years with Johnson.
Johnson was one of the town’s most vocal advocates for the construction of the John Ringling Bridge, which was completed in 2003. At the bridge’s opening ceremony, he was the town’s representative — which he described as his proudest moment in his eight years on the commission to the Longboat Observer in 2010.
It was one of the many times he served as the face of the town. He was there for virtually every event — chamber breakfasts, fish fry cookouts, pancake breakfasts — usually volunteering.
But while Johnson was highly visible in the community, he wasn’t big on the spotlight.
“He did not talk a great deal, but when he spoke, he had something to say,” Kerwin said.
Post-commission, Johnson pursued his longtime dream of becoming a photographer, beginning with a downtown Sarasota photography group he and Kerwin joined together. He didn’t buy a camera until 2010.
Four years later, he was honored for his photography with an Ageless Creativity award from the Arts Center — one of many awards he won for his work.
By that time, he told the Longboat Observer, he had taken more than 20,000 pictures, some in locations as far away as South America and Italy.
But he was most proud of one he took of the Ringling Bridge about three years ago.
“It was very spontaneous,” Jinny Johnson said. “He woke up early, saw it was a foggy morning and decided to see what he could capture.”
Like most of his favorite photos, its focus was on the community he worked to better for two decades.
“My best pictures don’t come from those trips,” he said when he won the Ageless Creativity Award. “I find so much interest here.”