Thomas Arthur "T.J." Johnson, a retired Army colonel and Vietnam veteran, died of a heart attack Thursday at Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air. The Abingdon resident was 55.
One of seven children, Colonel Johnson graduated from Glenbard East High School in Lombard, Ill., in 1966.
A year later, on New Year's Eve 1967, a friend set him up on a blind date with Susan L. Cowdrey, whom he would marry in 1969. "I thought he was very cute, very nice," Mrs. Johnson said of their first meeting.
In 1968, Colonel Johnson joined the Army and served as a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War. He was shot down eight times, his wife said. He won multiple awards throughout his 31-year military career - including several Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star.
"He hardly wore half the awards he was given," said his son, Arthur W. Johnson II of Abingdon. "He never looked for attention or accolades for anything he did. He did what he did because he thought that was what he was supposed to do."
After Colonel Johnson was released from the Army - "a reduction in force," Mrs. Johnson said - in the early 1970s, the couple moved to the Bowie area with their son and daughter, and he joined the Maryland National Guard.
Colonel Johnson earned a degree in business from the University of Maryland, College Park "while helping me raise two kids," Mrs. Johnson said.
In 1986, he was called to active Army duty, assigned to the National Guard, and moved his family to Harford County. He served first as the commander of the 1st Squadron, 158th Cavalry of the Maryland National Guard, and later worked in Virginia as chief of staff for the 29th Infantry Division. He retired as a colonel in 2000 and returned to Abingdon.
"T.J. was a very patriotic kind of a person," said Jim Kerr of Elkridge, a friend of 30 years.
Arthur Johnson credits his father with giving him and his sister direction. He joined the National Guard. His sister, Jennifer S. Wyatt of Bel Air, became a nurse at Upper Chesapeake Medical Center after nudging years ago from their father.
"He was a great father, and he kept me and my sister in line," said Arthur Johnson, adding that his father was strict, but also had a soft side: He collected teddy bears.
"It started back in the '70s," Mrs. Johnson said. "He'd get figurines and stuffed teddy bears every year on Christmas and birthdays. He must have gotten hundreds of them. He put them in the car, in displays on the furniture. He thought they were pretty special."
His favorites were the bears with patriotic symbols.
"He would do anything for his country and his family," his wife said. "Every time a ballgame would come on and he'd hear the national anthem, he'd hold out his arms and have goose bumps and say, 'It works for me.'"
The night before he died, he traveled to Washington to pay his respects to President Ronald Reagan at the Capitol Rotunda.
"He was so emotional and so excited about it. He was a true, dedicated American," his wife said.
Services are scheduled for 8:15 p.m. today at McComas Funeral Home in Abingdon, 1317 Cokesbury Road. Military graveside services will be held at 2 p.m. tomorrow at Arlington National Cemetery.
Colonel Johnson is also survived by his mother, Victoria Johnson of Lombard, Ill.; a brother, Charles Johnson of Elmhurst, Ill.; four sisters, Liz Hunka, Lois Kecklick, Ethel Fearnow and Margaret Oliphant, all of the Chicago area; and three granddaughters and a grandson.
Contributions may be made to the Alzheimer's Memorial Fund at the Johns Hopkins University: 1620 McElderry St., Room 1109, Baltimore 21205.