Richard Johanson died 96 years young last week.
“Young” because the self-made businessman and Fresno philanthropist always focused on what was ahead.
Like all of us, he would sometimes talk about the past. Who doesn’t enjoy a tale or two about the good old days?
But the best use of memories, he once explained, was to inspire dreams and put down the foundation for future success.
Johanson’s dad moved to the Valley with his family at the age of seven not speaking a word of English. He went to school, graduated, and hired on with Standard Oil.
The world welcomed Richard in 1925 — he was born at the Burnett Sanitarium at Fresno and S streets — and he grew up in San Joaquin and Kingsburg before the family settled in Fresno.
“We were raised with the expectancy that we would study, learn, raise families and try to bring credit to those around us,” Johanson said in an interview after he won the Leon S. Peters Award in 1996. “As my life has unfolded, I’ve been blessed in ways I never imagined.”
Grasp a Dream and Don’t Let Go
Asked what advice he had for young people, Johanson answered: “I picked a little cotton — by hand in those days — and I picked some grapes. Wherever you come from, grasp a dream, and work toward it. Oftentimes, you have a chance to get at least part of it.”
Johanson’s life did unfold with twists and turns.
He served with the Marines during World War II in China, an experience that taught him the value of discipline, teamwork, and doing the right thing. And, although he graduated from Fresno State with a major in marketing and a minor in advertising, his first job at Sun-Maid Raisins involved shipping.
Fascinated by logistics, he left Sun-Maid to work for a transportation broker and then founded his own trucking company with a handful of employees in 1971.
Road to Success Always Under Construction
Over time, Johanson Transportation Service grew into the powerhouse it is now. The keys to success: treat employees and customers with respect, gratitude, and integrity — and keep your eyes peeled on ways to improve.
“The road to success is always under construction. You always try to raise the bar,” he said.
The Johanson name is so synonymous with integrity, it’s hard to imagine someone approaching him with a crooked deal.
But, in that 1996 interview, he said his biggest customer “asked me to transport something that wasn’t legal and so I lost that account. It was about 40% of my business. Reflecting back upon that, it was the right thing to do.”
He shared his leadership skills, time, and money with a multitude of philanthropic efforts without ever seeking the spotlight. Life is a balance, he often said, involving family, church, business, and community.
Fact is, he loved Fresno and he wanted everyone to prosper. He called Fresno “the Valley’s queen city” and longed for it to have a thriving downtown that drew people from far and wide. Just as it did during his youth, when he marveled at the streetcars and thought of downtown as “a special place.”
Founding of CART
Perhaps his proudest accomplishment was helping to create CART, which brought together students from Fresno and Clovis unified school districts. The nationally recognized school offers rigorous academics, along with developing technical, entrepreneurial, and critical thinking skills.
“A great education system is essential to community success,” Johanson said. “CART is a prime example of what can happen school districts combine their assets and aspirations, and students can learn in a real-world environment. The school is a marriage of business and education.”
The late Pete Mehas had the foresight to ask Johanson many years ago how he wanted to be remembered.
“If people could think of me as someone that tried to do the right thing,” he said. “That I tried as best I could, in some small way, to influence younger people coming along. If you do it right, you can last and create something special.”
Johanson wrote the book “A Passion for Stewardship: The Legacy of a Generation” in which he explained how the Great Depression and World War II shaped him. The world’s much different now, but his advice on how to leave this world better than you found it is the perfect tonic for these unsettled times.