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Voyageur's Best Generally Speaking Columns of 2003

Kel Johnson

a man of a few words, talked through actions
by Ken Wisneski  |  June 24, 2003

Significant achievements often go unrecognized here in the St. Croix Valley. Until it’s too late. Just like anyplace else. We wait for the eulogy to heap praise. So it is with Kel Johnson, who died during heart surgery last week at age 52.

Kel Johnson, of Lake Elmo, lived a quiet life. Pretty much like the rest of us. Few folks knew that he was a key player, maybe the key player, in the state’s second largest industry. Kel was president of the Printing Industry of Minnesota, lobbying with extraordinary effectiveness on behalf of Minnesota printers.

I met him in 1987, not long after he took the job. Under Kel, the association grew in strength and prominence, achieving national recognition.

Because of Kel, the nationally circulated PIM guide and directory is arguably the best of its kind in the industry. The glossy, spectacularly colorful publication brought and continues to bring work to state printers. That work translates into dollars and jobs.

He also unified a competitive, feisty bunch of printing company owners and managers, by convincing them that – though they competed with each other for printing jobs – they needed to work together for the industry as a whole.

Kel’s personal style was atypical of association leaders, who tend to be rah-rah guys. Kel was introverted, an understated guy who preferred to work behind the scenes. At gatherings sponsored by the association, he was more likely to be seen on the fringes of the activity than front and forward. That role he left to PIM members.

Under Kel’s direction, the annual banquets sponsored by PIM were marvelous affairs, featuring world-class speakers. Media favorite Mark Russell, TV celebrity Art Linkletter, gubernatorial candidates Arne Carlson, Tim Penny and Tim Pawlenty, former U.S. Sen. William Proxmire, and many others of similar stature spoke to the huge crowd the banquet draws.

As for Kel, he never spoke at these affairs. Not once in all the years I attended them. The event was handled by print leaders themselves. But there was never any question about who was in charge.

Kel was enthusiastic and hard working while lobbying the state Legislature on behalf of his industry. Fiercely Republican, he did not forget his humble roots. Thus his allegiance included pressman and other workers, as well as owners and managers.

Kel was raised on a farm near Tamarack, Minn. – not far from the small factory town I called home for 17 years – and later graduated from McGregor High School. Our similar background and our mutual love of politics were the basis for the strong friendship that grew between us.

Kel got a kick out of ribbing me about being a liberal. Whenever, we met – at PIM golf outings, at holiday affairs, in his office or in the company of other printers – Kel could not resist sticking it to me, particularly during the later years of the Clinton presidency and during the Bush-Gore race.

I remember a discussion regarding the latter at a PIM held in Minneapolis. I said something way-out about how Bush walking on his tippy-toes irritated me.

“Boy,” Kel said, “You’ve got a rough four years ahead of you.” On this and many other things he was right.

Toward the end of his life, as he recovered at home from a heart surgery, I sent him a message through a PIM staffer.

“Tell, Kel,” I said, “That at heart I’m a greedy, money grubbing capitalist.”

I figured he’d get a kick out of that, but I didn’t hear back on how he reacted. That would be typical Kel. He was a very private guy, one who avoided the limelight.

He had a habit of standing quietly in front of you as you spoke, hands in his pockets, measuring your words before he said anything. When he did, his responses were not lengthy. They didn’t have to be. His accomplishments spoke for him.

So long, Kel. I’ll miss you.

Ken Wisneski, a writer, book reviewer and consultant, is a contributing columnist for the Stillwater Gazette. His column appears on Wednesdays. He also writes about a variety of outdoor and entertainment topics for the Gazette’s Valleylife section.

This article first appeared in the June 24, 2003 issue of the Voyageur Press.