William Johnsson’s last hire says he was mostly about one thing.
I was Bill Johnsson’s last hire from his 24 years as editor-in-chief of Adventist Review. I grew up with the magazine in my home, and even if all the content wasn’t always of interest to me as a child, teenager, and then young adult, I knew it was a journal that commanded respect. So I was aware of Bill Johnsson from an early age. And in the summer of 2006, I got the opportunity to call him my editor.
My parents and most of their friends knew Bill Johnsson, but not because they were all Adventist Review subscribers. You see, in their circle of fellow Indian immigrant friends who attended Spicer Memorial College during the 1960s and early 1970s, he wasn’t a well-known name yet, but just a really good human being. And as several of them said at his memorial service on March 25, Bill was a dear teacher who became so much more. If any of them took his “Life and Teachings of Christ” course, he was the man who left an indelible mark on all their lives. But he was also their cricket team member and campus friend — a man they never forgot.
One Sunday, during a training run with the Southern Asian Seventh-day Adventist Church’s walking and running club in Silver Spring, Maryland, I bumped into Bill on the trail. Chuckling, he explained how he hadn’t been able to get into his regular stride because so many Indians were stopping and greeting him along the way. I told him he was a celebrity. He laughed some more.
My first day at Adventist Review was kind of epic. And it wasn’t just for the opportunity to work with and learn from a prolific and gifted writer and editor, but a person who was also a true representative of all that was good about the Seventh-day Adventist movement. The Review was a well-oiled machine under Bill’s leadership, and I marveled at the synergy between this team of incredibly talented, true Christian communication professionals. They welcomed me in, and I expected nothing more than to sit in my cube, accomplish the tasks before me, and learn.
But as I found out, Bill Johnsson was a leader who managed his team in a collegial way. That summer I was training for my first half-marathon. Knowing that Bill and colleague Steve Chavez were avid marathoners, I asked them for tips. Throughout the summer, Bill would inquire about how training was going and was genuinely excited for my first race in September, even requesting I bring in my medal for staff meeting. Once I was back in the office, he stopped by to ask how things went at the race. But then, in looking at me, he said I looked very tired, concluded I had pushed myself too hard, and gently told me to go home early and rest. I could only smile and feel incredibly grateful for his kindness and care.
After I completed a particularly lengthy assignment for an Adventist Review cover package during those months, he told me it was good work. I shyly brushed off the compliment. But Bill countered that he knew how much I had put into it and wouldn’t let me downplay the achievement. How good it felt to be appreciated by someone I respected so much.
Bill’s love for India and the people he served for 15 years was evident during the Saturday (Sabbath) service when he spoke at Southern Asian church not long before retiring. I remember that he told the audience how nerves sometimes got to him before delivering a Sabbath morning sermon, but that morning was different. “Because this time,” he said in a voice thick with emotion, “I am among friends.”
His memorial service in early March, which I was honored to attend for Adventist Review, offered such a sweet mix of three important parts of his life: his time in India, exemplified by the many former Spicer students and friends who participated; his work—as an editor, writer, theologian, and passionate Adventist; and love. Love for his family, for his friends, for his church, for all the people who’d touched his life, and most of all, for his Savior.
The teaching and writing never stopped until Bill went to his rest. And I loved that he never stopped sharing his voice.
Because Bill Johnsson spoke the truth in love, for love was the hallmark of his life.
Watch William Johnsson’s memorial service at the Crosswalk Adventist church site. Wilona Karimabadi is assistant editor of Adventist Review.