Jimmy Johnson, patriarch of Idyllwild’s historically important Johnson family, and son of Gerald “Jerry” Johnson, a prime mover in Idyllwild’s emergence as a residential community, died at 7:10 p.m. Saturday, June 12 at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage. The cause of death was congestive heart failure, according to son Jay. Johnson, “Jimmy” to his friends, was 77.
His passing severs a direct link to the seminal days of Idyllwild’s post World War II growth spurt, when, owing to the entrepreneurial initiatives of his father, Jerry Johnson, Idyllwild began to evolve from a small community of fewer than 500 people to the Idyllwild of today. Jimmy was part of that historical arc — a man who watched it all happen and who also played an important role in Idyllwild’s maturation.
In 1946, Jerry Johnson and two partners bought Idyllwild All-Year Resorts from Dr. Paul Foster. The purchase of numerous downtown village businesses including the Idyllwild Water Company, Rustic Tavern, Idyllwild Theatre, Idyllwild Market, Idyllwild Stables, 1,500 subdivided lots, and an additional 320 acres returned ownership of most of present day Idyllwild to local control. After the Idyllwild Inn burned in May 1945, taking with it the ballroom where locals had long danced, Jerry Johnson played a key role in getting Town Hall built and dedicated. He donated the site on which it now stands. Jimmy, who was 13 when excavation for the basement started in November 1946, recalled helping mix sand, cement and water to make concrete. “We needed a place,” Jimmy remembered during an interview for an article in the current Visitors’ Guide. “We used to have songfests, big name bands, dances, and we needed a new social center.”
In the same interview, Jimmy recounted his and his family’s long history with Idyllwild and his dramatic entrance into this world. “My grandfather was a preacher in Long Beach,” Jimmy remembered. “My mom [Eleanor Poates] and dad moved to Idyllwild in 1928.” On a visit to Long Beach, when Eleanor was pregnant with Jimmy, she went into labor and was rushed to the hospital. Jimmy recounted that he was born during the 6.4 magnitude Long Beach earthquake on March 10, 1933. The quake, claimed 115 lives, but at least one, Jimmy, made his debut while aftershocks shook the hospital. Eleanor and Jimmy had to be moved to the hospital grounds temporarily for reasons of safety.
With that kind of arrival, it is not surprising that Jimmy lived life large. According to sons Jay and Steve, he was a Korean War veteran, a Mason, an avid hunter, fisherman, nationally competitive trap shooter and ham radio enthusiast who helped get Mile High Radio Club up and running.
After Jerry died in the early 1960s, Jimmy took over the family real estate development business. He built the first small restaurant, the Tax Shelter, at Eleanor Park, the site of present day Jo’An’s, and developed and built many residential sites. He continued to travel to shoot in competitions and to hunt and fish. “Dad liked to travel,” said Jay. “He loved going salmon fishing in Oregon at Winchester Bay and deep sea fishing in Mexico.”
Jimmy Johnson leaves behind sons Jay and Steve, grandsons Jason and Craig, siblings Jerry Lee, Carol Anne and Joanne, and his companion of many years, his English hunting cocker spaniel, Sheila. Johnson’s wife Marrianne preceded him in death in 1994.
Services for Jimmy Johnson will be held at 10 a.m. Thursday, June 17 at the chapel of Miller-Jones Mortuary at 1501 West Florida, Hemet, telephone (951) 658-3161. The family requests that in lieu of flowers, donations be made in Jimmy’s name to any heart or cancer society.