At 6 feet 3, the Rev. Saul Johnson III was a big man with humility to match.
The longtime St. Paul resident, who died July 23 of pancreatic cancer at the age of 70, had a final wish — that his family hold no funeral. “Rather than a service, he said, ‘Do something for someone else.’ That would make him very happy,” said his elder son Matthew.
Johnson’s life lessons of humility and generosity stemmed from his grandfather, also a minister. Johnson, who was born in Syracuse, N.Y., and raised in Washington, D.C., by a naval officer father and homemaker mom, believed in helping the hungry, sick, addicted and poor, even if it meant opening his home.
“He will be missed. He always had a big smile on his face. And he had a big open heart for down and outers,” said best friend Jerry Meusburger. The two graduated from Northwestern Lutheran Theological Seminary (now Luther Seminary) in the 1970s after years of working with troubled children.
Last fall, a barbecue grill was found at a condemned house near Meusburger’s upholstery shop in St. Paul. Nearby was a home for recovering alcoholics. Meusburger and Johnson set up that grill in the alley and grilled burgers. “All the bums came. We had one big picnic. And Saul sat right in the middle of it all just as happy as could be. … Oh, we had a lot of fun together.”
Meusburger left the ministry in the 1980s, exhausted by human woes. “I had enough of it. But Saul stayed in it,” he said. “He had a pretty good way of leaving work at work and living his own life at home.”
Well, sort of.
“There was always someone staying at his apartment” on Carroll Avenue, his son said. “If someone was down on his luck, he always offered them a place to stay. It could be for days, weeks or months. Sometimes things went missing. I would say, ‘Pop, maybe you should rethink this.’ It wouldn’t matter. ... He was beyond generous.”
Johnson earned his undergraduate degree from John F. Kennedy College in Nebraska in 1970 and was ordained at New Hope Baptist Church in 1976. He was hired a year later as a chaplain for the Council of Churches, where he filled in for ministers and social workers at churches across the city. He helped fund the MLK Rec Center’s basketball league and the Walker West Music Academy. Johnson’s goal? Make sure St. Paul kids got the uniforms, sneakers, instruments and lessons needed.
At one Council of Churches meeting, he met his now ex-wife but lifelong friend, Jane, and asked her to dinner and a movie. “He made me dinner, lobster Newburg,” she said. “Saul was an excellent cook. … He was very outgoing, very affable, easily approachable and a very good listener. People just loved him. He was like a big teddy bear.”
They married in 1978 and moved to Madison, Wis., where she studied nursing at the University of Wisconsin and he worked for Madison General Hospital’s outpatient chemical dependency division. The couple had two sons, Matthew and Peter, and moved back to the Twin Cities in 1985. Saul became an intervention specialist for the Institute on Black Chemical Abuse and African American Family Services. He spent 10 years as a Hennepin County social worker and adult mental-health case manager.
He then joined Twin Cities Rise but left in 2002 after his father died, leaving him an inheritance that allowed him to retire and pursue his passions: mornings at Ginkgo Coffeehouse and his collections of movie soundtracks, DVDs, CDs, beer steins and rare books. “My father was quite the collector,” Matthew said. “He had 20,000 vinyls and 5,000 books. It took me three weeks to sort it all out. He was like a big kid.”
Johnson is survived by sons Matthew and Peter, his grandchildren and his ex-wife, Jane. At his request, no services were held.