Remembrance and reflection: my friend Johnnie

I still remember the first time I ever talked to Johnnie. He was helping plan a philanthropy for his fraternity, and he called me after I had volunteered to do stand up comedy at the event. He was so enthusiastic, that I had a hard time understanding him. Johnnie had never heard my routine before, but he was so excited and complimentary that he made me feel like I was Jerry Seinfeld, or some other famous comedian.

Johnnie and I got to know each other very well as students at Bowling Green State University. The same semester I met Johnnie, he became the president of BG’s Undergraduate Student Government while I joined USG as a senator. We became friends quickly. The following fall, I was elected president of Bowling Green’s Interfraternity Council. With respect to our roles, he and I mutually attended a lot of functions. I was always proposing ridiculous ideas to Johnnie about how USG and IFC should operate. Even the picture at the top of this post is the product of those ideas. I told him we needed to be real politicians and stage photos of ourselves having important conversations. For that picture, Johnnie humored me. He always humored me.

I think college students who are presidents of organizations do it for a number of reasons. There can be incentives to doing it, it can be fun, it can look good on a resume, others just like a sense of power. But in being president of the student government at Bowling Green, I always sensed a certain altruism with Johnnie. He loved the university and was sincerely passionate about what he was doing

He had a one year term as president. I don’t think I’ve ever told this to anyone, but I had such a high opinion of how Johnnie ran student government that I offered to be his vice president if he considered running for re-election. He decided to retire.

As I think about the words I write, scenes in the past year flash in my mind. I remember the lunch with friends last June where it was mentioned that my good friend Johnnie had been extremely fatigued. I think of hearing the news a few weeks later that Johnnie had been diagnosed with cancer. I think of the optimistic picture that was originally painted. From the information I had, the treatments didn’t go well in the beginning. I think of the phone conversation we had last fall. He sounded great. We talked about politics, life, and what Johnnie was going to do once he got healthy again. But his health continued to betray him. After months of failed treatments, at times, the realist in me worried about his longterm prognosis. I regularly called to see how he was doing, but I rarely received an answer. Certainly I understood when he was too sick or tired to talk.

A few weeks ago, he had a bone-marrow transplant and even though the odds were against him, I was flooded with a sense of optimism. “This time.” I thought. “It will work and he will get better.” Thursday evening, I received a call from Johnnie’s best friend, and a great friend of mine. He and I talk on the phone at least once a week, but when I saw him calling me, in my gut, I had a feeling it was about Johnnie. Part of me had been emotionally preparing for this for weeks, but I was stunned.

I hated seeing the pictures of Johnnie on Facebook as he lost weight and became progressively sicker. But those images are not the impressions of Johnnie that I’ll hold onto. I’ll remember a gentlemen. I’ll remember someone who was articulate, intelligent, and mature beyond his age. I’ll remember a guy who loved a deep conversation and who had a great laugh. I’ll remember Johnnie’s legacy and the lives he touched. I’ll remember some stories with Johnnie and other friends that I probably shouldn’t share on this blog. I’ll remember the “L.”

Johnnie was infamous for mentioning his middle initial in introductions. At events as students, when I knew he could hear me, sometimes, I would introduce myself as Joshua L. Benner (my middle initial is actually R.)

I’ll remember the Blackberry! Johnnie had a Blackberry before a lot of people had cell phones. He had a Blackberry before a lot of us knew that there was such a thing as a “smart” phone. He had a Blackberry when a Blackberry was cool. He even had a Blackberry after the Blackberry was cool!

If any relatives happen to read this, I hope that my reflections of my friendship over the last five years with Johnnie might provide a small glimmer of light in the face of today’s terrible news. So many join in the mourning and in remembering such a special person. For all who knew and loved Johnnie, as the grieving continues, I hope that the coming days, and weeks, and months might fill us all with the great memories of Johnnie.

I go through a range of emotions as I think about Johnnie. I remember stories, and I feel myself smile. Then I’m struck by the surreal thought that he’s gone and I feel like I’ll be sick. It’s as if concrete is being mixed in my stomach. My heart breaks for the experiences I know he won’t have, but my pity is with the rest of us. Our world has a little less light today. In terms of days, his life was far too short. In terms of what he did with those days, Johnnie L. Lewis died a very old man.

It strikes me how fast these things all happened. It seems like only yesterday, Johnnie was healthy and everything was fine. But a little more than a year after his initial diagnosis with lymphoma, today the battle ended.

It was in May that Johnnie called me out of the blue one day. It was the same week I was getting ready to move from Columbus to Chicago and I was extremely stressed out. His voice was a bit strained, but I was more than happy to talk to my friend Johnnie. It was one of those conversations that you never want to end. Unfortunately, it had to. As our chat wound down, unsure of when we would be able to speak again, I said, “I’ll talk to you later, Brother. I love you.”

“I love you too,” Johnnie said.

Johnnie, it was an honor to know you and I thank you for your friendship. God be with you. I love ya Brother, and I’ll miss you.