FORREST JOHNSON OBITUARY
Forrest (Forrie) Johnson, age 98, passed away peacefully, with family by his side, on January 17, 2024, following a brief illness. Forrie lived life to the fullest, right up until his final days. In the hours before he passed, he said, “I’ve had a great life.” In almost 99 years of living, he left an extraordinary amount of love in his wake. The ripple effect of his kindness continues to be felt by his family, friends, colleagues, and decades of English and Journalism students who loved him so dearly they still call him “Papa J” to this day.
Forrie was born in Kingsford, Michigan, in 1925, to Frithiof and Margaret Johnson. Drawn to adventure, he was a skilled ski jumper and earned a Junior Golden Gloves boxing title in his youth. He vividly recalled the lean years of the Great Depression, which undoubtedly contributed to his appreciation for the many future opportunities and blessings throughout his life. Forrie was a decorated veteran, having served in the Navy in WWII. He was a hero in every sense of the word, yet fully realized the grim cost of war. After the war, he attended Northern Michigan University on the G.I. bill, where he ultimately earned bachelor’s degrees in English and Biology. A man of many talents, Forrie was a drummer with Paul’s Vets, a band composed of G.I.s who played big band and swing music in the Marquette area during the early 1940s. Forrie continued to play drums into his upper 90s with the Johnson family band, and could often be found in his garage, drumming to big band music on the public radio station. While attending Northern Michigan University, Forrie met his beloved wife Olive (Ollie) La Fave, his wife of 72 years, until she passed away in 2020. Forrie and Ollie made a beautiful life on Island Lake in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin, where they raised five children and spent many years working at LaFave’s Island Lake Resort, the family resort owned by Ollie’s parents, John and Sai LaFave. Countless resort guests, friends, and family members spent their summers learning how to waterski behind Forrie’s boat.
A life-long lover of learning and higher education, Forrie later went on to earn multiple master’s degrees. For nearly 40 years, he taught English, Journalism, and served as a Forensics Speech coach at Minocqua High School and Lakeland Union High School. Papa J always had time to counsel his students, lend a sympathetic ear, and serve as a surrogate Papa to anybody who needed one. In 2023, he was honored to become the first recipient of Lakeland Union High School’s Thunderbird Award, for excellence in education. Never one to sit idle for long, Forrie also worked for many summers as a DNR officer and as a Woodruff police officer. For years, Forrie was an active member of the Manitowish Waters Lions Club, having served as President and earning the Melvin Jones award. He was also an expert woodcarver, often gifting his loved ones with meticulously carved and painted birds and wildlife.
Forrie’s brilliant storytelling was legendary, and it was common for him to captivate his listeners with extraordinarily detailed accounts of his life as an educator, musician, Navy Veteran, and police officer. He never forgot an acquaintance, and everyone he met became a firm and lasting friend. His ability to recall every detail of his life, experiences, and the people he met along the way was astounding–even until his very last day. His five children were the joys of his life, along with his ten grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, who affectionately called him Bunga. Loved ones looked forward to Forrie’s harmonica birthday serenade phone calls each year. He passed on his love of music, literature, and the spoken word to his children and grandchildren. His love for family and friends was unconditional, and his humor, acceptance, and compassion were unfailing.
Forrie is survived by his children: Michael (Janice) Johnson, Linda Bellmer, Marcus (Renee) Johnson, Lisa (Steve) Hinz-Johnson, and Susie (James) Sawyer, along with grandchildren Morgan, Megan (Nick), Marissa (Steve), Taylor, Michaela, Benjamin, Andrea, Evelyn, Ava, and Marina, as well as great-grandchildren Forrest and Elias, and sisters Norma Duerst and Nancy Bullock. Forrie is predeceased by his wife, Olive LaFave Johnson, brother Stewart Johnson, sister Gloria Weber, and Son-in-Law John Bellmer.
An avid reader until his very last days, Forrie treasured his extensive home library of books and was a weekly visitor to the Frank B. Koller Memorial Library in Manitowish Waters. In lieu of flowers, please send memorial donations to: Frank B. Koller Memorial Library, PO Box 100, Manitowish Waters, WI 54545.
Services for Forrie and Ollie Johnson will be held at Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Manitowish Waters on August 3. Nimsgern Funeral & Cremation Services is serving the family. Please share your memories at www.nimsgernfuneral.com.