Andy Johnson honors his dad at Big Sur

Ralph Johnson was in his 40s when he and the love of his life, Melissa Crowell, married and had children. Andy Johnson grew up with the knowledge that his father was older than his classmates’ fathers. Looking back, Andy realizes his father parented him in a way that showed he understood that the implications of having children later in life. Ralph seemed to know he might not have as much time with his sons as he would have if he had become a parent at a younger age, and he never took his time with his children for granted. Andy recalls a childhood where he and his father bonded over sports. Andy played soccer, football and basketball as a kid, but his one true love was baseball. “We were the father and son who would practice for five hours together on the weekends,” Andy explains. When Andy was 10, his father introduced him to running. Ralph was an avid runner who had completed several marathons. Ralph, who was an attorney, enjoyed running because it helped him to clear his mind from the stresses of his career. He shared his love of running with his son and the two ran their first race together, the Bay to Breakers, in 1997 when Andy was only 11-years-old. Now Andy is preparing to run the Big Sur Marathon in honor of his dad, whom he lost to pancreatic cancer.

Andy & Ralph Johnson run the Bay to Breakers together.
Andy & Ralph Johnson run the Bay to Breakers together.

Ralph Johnson left home at the age of 16 and joined the Navy. He served his country honorably from 1958 through 1961, during the build-up towards the Vietnam War. Upon completing his service, Ralph put himself through college and, eventually, law school. An active supporter of the 1960s social movement, Ralph lived his passions and ideals. He rode with the Freedom Fighters and worked on Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign. Eventually, he went on to be a Deputy Attorney General in the California State Attorney General’s office. His father’s strength and moral conviction left an indelible mark on Andy. He explains, “He followed where his heart told him to go. He had a strong moral compass and was unwaveringly dedicated to that moral compass. He set a really high bar for what it is to be a man, and to be an American. Dad exemplified to me what moral conviction and conviction to a belief really is.”

Andy Johnson with his family
Andy with his father, mother and brother at a Giant’s game.

Ralph retired from his legal career at the age of 65, when Andy was a sophomore in high school. “After he retired, my dad was always around. He was very active. He walked, ran, went to the gym and volunteered a lot,” Andy recalls. Andy enjoyed the extra time with his father. After he graduated from high school, Andy needed to experience life on his own. He went to college in Washington State at Gonzaga University, where he studied accounting and worked in public accounting following his graduation.

In the fall of 2012, Andy first heard that his father was experiencing severe back pains. Father and son frequently Skyped to stay in touch, and Andy remembers Ralph’s face looking alarmingly thinner as the weeks passed. His formerly active father was no longer running or even walking. Eventually, he was barely able to leave his home. Over the course of a couple of months, Ralph had lost 25 pounds. Despite repeated visits to the doctor, his primary care physician was unable to detect what was causing Ralph’s pain and weight loss. Finally, a PET scan revealed a blocked bile duct. When the surgeon went in to place a stent to open up the bile duct, he discovered a tumor in Ralph’s pancreas. The first biopsy did not show any cancer in the growth, but a repeat biopsy in January, 2013 showed very different results. Ralph had pancreatic cancer.

Andy flew down from Washington to be with his father for his first oncology visit. The doctor explained that Ralph would undergo chemotherapy. When Andy pressed the doctor for answers, he learned that his father had Stage III, locally advanced pancreatic cancer. Andy had done lots of research and he knew the odds his father faced were not good. A few days later, Ralph started chemotherapy, with Andy by his side. Andy believed that his father was doing well, so he returned to his job in Washington. His father started to decline quickly, however. Public accounting is a stressful, high-paced field, particularly during tax season, but Andy’s boss had lost her own father years earlier. She told Andy to go be with his dad, so he quickly returned to California. Andy is glad that he was able to have this time with his father, though it was extremely difficult for him to watch his dad’s rapid decline. Once again, Andy returned to Washington, only to get more bad news from home. His father was back in the hospital. Andy returned to California on March 5th. He was with his dad when he passed away on March 8, 2013.

Ralph & Andy Johnson
Ralph & Andy Johnson

Andy struggled following his father’s passing. He realized the wide-ranging impact his father made on every area of his life. After working in public accounting for four-and-a-half years, he asked himself, “What am I doing with my life?” It was then that Andy decided to make a career change. He is now attending the same law school that his father attended, University of California Hastings, and he hopes to eventually work for the Department of Justice fighting white-collar crime. After not hearing his father’s voice for three years, Andy recently got to hear tapes of Ralph arguing before the Supreme Court. The experience was deeply moving.

Andy with his mother and brother
Andy with his mother and brother

Andy, who has been a runner since he took those first steps with his father many years ago, recently decided that he wanted to find a way to honor his father through his running. His dad had always wanted to run the Boston Marathon, but had never qualified. Andy started looking for charities affiliated with the Boston Marathon and found Project Purple. When he did a little investigating into the charity, he learned that the organization was also a partner with the Big Sur Marathon, which is in his home state of California. Andy immediately signed on to run the race.

As the race approaches, Andy is very happy to be running with the Project Purple team. He explains, “Losing my father was the most awful thing that has happened to me. But, I am trying to find the silver lining in all of this. Pancreatic cancer sucks. It comes and shakes your life up and you have to put your pieces back together. I am blessed to have a great support system. It is part of the reason why I feel committed to Project Purple.”

Please make a tax-deductible donation to Andy’s Project Purple fundraiser at the following link:

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