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Former legislator Eldon Johnson dies

Longtime former state legislator Eldon Johnson, 85, who represented the Medford area in Salem for more than two decades, died early today. He was hospitalized Aug. 28 in Medford after suffering a stroke and died in hospice at the Rogue Valley Manor, where he lived.

Steve Vincent, a former legislative aide to Johnson and now the Oregon regional business manager for Avista Utilities, remembers his former boss as a bipartisan representative who was willing to listen to both sides of an issue.

"Sitting on the other side of the desk from him, I saw that he was always fair ... regardless of disagreement," Vincent said. "He really demonstrated that fairness better than anyone else in the Legislature."

Johnson, who founded what is now known as Grover Electric and Plumbing, served on numerous boards in addition to the Oregon Legislature. He was a member of the Medford School Board from 1968 to 1977, twice serving as chairman. He also served on the boards of the Rogue Valley Manor, the Salvation Army and the Craterian theater.

Johnson was appointed to the state House of Representatives in 1977 to fill a seat vacated by Brad Morris. A Republican, Johnson went on to be elected to 10 additional terms before being forced out of office in 1999 by a statewide term-limit measure that was later struck down by the courts as unconstitutional. At one time or another, his district included portions of Medford, Jacksonville, Central Point, western Jackson County and a portion of Josephine County.

"I was always impressed with how much work he did behind the scenes," Vincent said. "He had an amount of influence in the Legislature that nobody knew about."

Among the former legislators who remembered Johnson's contributions is current Oregon Congressman Greg Walden, who served with Johnson in Salem from the late '80s to mid-'90s.

“I am saddened to learn of the passing of Eldon Johnson," Walden said in an email. "He was fiercely independent and worked hard. He made a real difference for his community and state during his time in Salem. My thoughts and prayers are with his family.”

Johnson was widely hailed by human services organizations for his efforts to limit budget cuts affecting services for the needy, elderly and disabled following the 1990 passage of Measure 5, which limited taxes. He was recognized by the Oregon Human Services Coalition in 1991 with its Gold Star Award, the same year he was honored for "outstanding advocacy on behalf of seniors" by the Oregon Association of Area Agencies on Aging and "for improving the quality of life for individuals with disabilities in Jackson and Josephine counties" by the Southern Oregon Association of Providers. Other groups that recognized his work on behalf of human services included the Community Action Directors of Oregon, the Oregon Health Care Association and the Jackson County Welfare Advisory Board.

Vincent said Johnson, as a member of the Human Services subcommittee of the Ways and Means Committee in 1991, joined forces with a Democrat to "basically hold the DHS (Department of Human Services) budget hostage" through most of the legislative session, until the cuts were reduced. In the end, Vincent said, about 80 percent of the cuts were rescinded.

Roger Hassenpflug remembers the episode well. As former executive director of Living Opportunities, which assists people with developmental disabilities, he worked with Johnson on the budget issue.

"He really stood up for some people who needed someone to stand up for them," Hassenpflug said of Johnson. "I think he was genuinely touched by the vulnerable population that was going to be affected by those cuts."

Johnson was "a very quiet leader, a highly principled guy," Hassenpflug said.

Johnson was born Aug. 16, 1930, in West Point, Neb. His family was impoverished and he only attended school to the 10th grade. He was with the U.S. Air Force from 1953 to 1957, stationed in Germany and England. It was in England in 1957 that he met his future wife, Barbara, and they married later that year.

In addition to Barbara, he is survived by a daughter, Karen Okada, of Keizer; a son, Robert, of Napa, Calif.; four grandchildren and a sister, Velma Woods, of Alaska.

A Celebration of Life service will be held at 2 p.m. Friday, Oct. 2, at the Rogue Valley Manor Auditorium. It is open to the public.

Bob Hunter is editor of the Mail Tribune. Reach him at bhunter@mailtribune.com.

Eldon Johnson