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Before the Rev. Waldo Johnson was called to be a Lutheran pastor, he was a nationally ranked debater and earned a bachelor's degree in history from St. Olaf College in Northfield.

Johnson, who wove his skills as a speaker and historian into his ministry, died on July 6 in Minneapolis of respiratory failure.

The former pastor of Nokomis Lutheran Church in Minneapolis was 78.

The Rev. Lowell Erdahl, retired bishop of the St. Paul Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, knew him first as a senior member of the debating squad at St. Olaf, recalling that Johnson and others competed in national championship debates in West Point, N.Y.

"He was an excellent speaker," Erdahl said. "He had a long and faithful ministry."

Johnson grew up in Mankato, graduating from Mankato High School in 1947. He graduated from Luther Seminary in St. Paul and was ordained in 1955. He was the pastor at Nokomis Lutheran from 1968 to 1979.

He helped establish the Nokomis Square Cooperative, an apartment building for seniors. For his service to the community, Minneapolis cited his efforts in the 1970s.

Karl Starr of Minneapolis was a confirmation student of Johnson's. "He spoke to the congregation from the heart," Starr said. "His preaching was very lively and conversational."

As a teacher, "Waldo just had charge of that class, and he always held my interest," Starr said.

One of Johnson's sons, Mark of Eden Prairie, said his father was a "tremendous storyteller" who would lay down the historical background for his listeners, tying in a personal story or stories from his travels in the Holy Land. "The congregation felt as if they were there," his son said, and he would "bring it back into the Gospel message."

Johnson left Minneapolis to serve churches in Ham Lake, Shoreview and Arden Hills, and Evanston, Ill.

He was called out of retirement in 2000, helping parishes for a few years.

His wife, Nordis of Eden Prairie, said Roman Catholic clergy would attend his classes about early Christian leaders. "He was a compulsive teacher and preacher," his wife said. "He loved it so much."

Johnson suffered several ailments in recent years and moved from Wausau, Wis., where he had been a part-time pastor, to Eden Prairie in 2007.

In addition to his wife and son Mark, he is survived by his daughter, Sara Sullivan of Eden Prairie; his other sons, Waldo of Eden Prairie, and Michael of Moorhead, Minn.; brother, John Johnson of Howard Lake, Minn., and two grandchildren.

Services will be held at 2 p.m. Tuesday at Lake Nokomis Lutheran Church, 5011 31st Av. S., Minneapolis, with visitation beginning at noon at the church.