Obituary: Robert Lien Johnson, longtime Ridgefield resident

Robert Lien Johnson of Deer Hill Drive in Ridgefield died peacefully in his sleep on February 4 at the age of 96. His curiosity about the world and his ambition to explore it served him well throughout his life, leading him to far-flung places and to the frontier of the 20th Century’s shrinking global community.

He personified his generation: a small-town boy from a modest family in the midwest, raised during the depression with big ideas and sky-high dreams. He set out to see the world and in so doing, rode the arc of aviation history. He was a man who playfully wore a red “Make America Great Again” cap — with twinkle in his eye — part of the generation that actually did make America great.

He gave himself to service — volunteering for the Lion’s Club, distributing meals at Thanksgiving, and taking over the responsibilities of running a local men’s clothing store for a friend in crisis. His 57 years of service with the Lion’s Club earned him the organization’s Ambassador of Sight, Knight of the Blind, and the distinguished Melvin Jones awards, given to those who demonstrate selfless volunteerism.

He was a dapper dresser, an elegant dancer, and a polite gentleman who always lit cigarettes for the ladies and unfailingly addressed his waiters as “sir.” He was a maverick who embraced contemporary architecture when others favored center-hall Colonials. He built his “house in the trees” on a dirt road with a miles-wide view of the New York mountain skyline through walls of glass. He remained a handsome man with a full head of hair — slightly crushed by the pillow — until the end of his days.

Born on May 23, 1921, in Steven’s Point, Wisconsin, to Peter and Emma Lien Johnson, he was the eldest son of five children. His siblings Marie, Eleanor, Dorothy, and Neal predeceased him. Bob was an Eagle Scout, a distinction few today seek to attain, but one he succeeded in inspiring his son to achieve, recognizing honesty, integrity, and disciplined hard work.

Bob studied two years at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, then spent a brief time working in aviation design. In restlessness, when the Second World War began he set off for California, completing his studies with Cal Aero Tech. He began employment with Pan American World Airways in March of 1943.

After his training on Treasure Island, near San Francisco, Bob took his first crew trip to Hawaii flying on the last China Clipper. The entire Pacific division of Pan Am was put into service with the US Naval Reserve, flying military personnel and cargo to Pacific locations like Funafuti, New Caledonia, and American Samoa.

Bob flew for Pan Am for another four decades, flying the catalog of aircraft, from Clippers, to DC-10s, to Boeing 707s, and introducing the now-retired 747s in the early 1970s, He was stationed in the 1950s in London where he expanded Pan Am’s routes throughout Europe, and was later based in New York, when Pan Am was the US flagship airline. His career spanned eras thwarting hijacking and terrorist attempts in the 1970’s, expanding mass travel in the 80s, and suffering the fall of Pan Am after Lockerbie. He was honored to have flown with Colonel Charles Lindbergh twice, and to have attended the White House for President Ronald Reagan’s Christmas Party.

Bob moved to Ridgefield in 1957 with his first wife Alice and his three children, all of whom graduated from Ridgefield High School. He scouted a piece of property and built his modern dream house high on a hill he shared with his Pan Am buddy, Robert Lewis, who passed away in October after a friendship of more than 70 years. He had deep roots in Ridgefield. Despite his own modest education, he was proud to be part of a community that provided his children an education he considered essential to success.

Bob is survived by his wife of 37 years Ann Smith Johnson, his children Hal of Sarasota, FL; Christina Johnson Kent (Art) of Houston, TX; Karen of Washington, DC; stepsons Brian Smith (Lyn) of Wells, ME; Steve Smith, of Alexandria, VA; grandchildren Brett and Alex Johnson, Olivia Kent Moore (Michael), Karen, Sean, and Eric Smith; great-grandchild Natalie Smith; and five nieces and nephews.

At his retirement after more than 45 years of flying, Bob was read a poem that meets this moment of remembrance.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I’ve climbed … and done a hundred things

You have not dreamed of …

…And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod

The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

— John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

Memorial services will be held at St. Andrews Lutheran Church, Ivy Hill Road, Ridgefield, on February 24, at 11:00 AM with a reception following.

In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Lions Club Scholarship Fund, P.O. Box 77, Ridgefield, CT, 06877.