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Guest column: Remembering Sam Johnson

July 6, 2020
Op-Ed and Letters

On Monday, June 8, I caught the 5:30 a.m. flight out of Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Connecticut to Dallas, Texas for the funeral services of an iconic American hero, Congressman Sam Johnson.

It was an honor to attend this service for a man who could have been buried in Arlington National Cemetery as a decorated war hero but, true to his character, chose instead to be buried along with his wife, Shirley, of 65 years in Dallas, Texas. That’s Sam Johnson – humble, straightforward, and loyal to his country, his community, his God, and his wife Shirley.

Sam requested that the funeral procession drive by his favorite eating place the Allen Cafe and then through downtown Plano where he was greeted by his hometown, family, and friends, when he first returned from his captivity in Vietnam. And where today an American flag was draped over the main thoroughfare hoisted and held up by two enormous cranes. Crowds lined the street, as they did 47 years ago, to bid a last goodbye and final salute to their hometown hero, Sam Johnson.

There were 87 American flags posted along the road into the cemetery signifying the number of combat missions he flew. There had been public calling hours on Sunday and by all accounts the turnout, even with COVID, was thousands of people.

His family, though grateful, had to be exhausted. Though the service at the cemetery was private for family, staff, and dignitaries, there were over 500 people there who paid their final respects, which was punctuated by a flyover of the world-famous Thunder Birds. What a fitting tribute to Sam.

Sam was top gun before Tom Cruise was. My favorite story of the day, however, was that when Sam was campaigning for his seat in the statehouse none other than Roger Staubach, the Vietnam Veteran and Dallas Cowboys player, was his campaign manager. Sam credits him with the win! Can you think of two more iconic war heroes and patriots than Roger and Sam?

Sam faithfully represented Texas for almost 28 years, the oldest member of Congress, when he retired in 2019. Serving as the Chair of the Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee, he was committed to Social Security solvency. He never wavered on the importance of our seniors retiring securely and often expressed concern for future beneficiaries. I was privileged to serve as the Ranking Democrat alongside Sam Johnson during his time as Chairman of the Social Security Subcommittee and will always cherish the friendship we formed.

During his time on the Ways and Means Committee, he also served alongside John Lewis, another iconic and genuine American hero. In 2016, along with Representative Tom Cole and the Bipartisan Policy Center, we created the Congressional Patriot Award. Sam and John were the first recipients of the award. John Lewis was presented his award by Ambassador Andrew Young Jr., and quite fittingly, Sam was presented with his by the late-Senator John McCain, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy presided.

They both are authentic heroes. One held in captivity by the VietCong and tortured and nearly beaten to death; the other held captive by the Alabama police clubbed and beaten. They both had a genuine focus on doing for others, not themselves. They are humble, gracious and kind, yet warriors for their cause. It was a privilege to be part of the celebration for both of them that evening.

Sam Johnson epitomized what it meant to put service before self and demonstrated that throughout his storied career. It was an honor to be at the gravesite for the final salute to him, and even more of an honor to have served with him. The eyes of Texas and the nation shed tears of gratitude and thanks for a true American hero.

Congressman John B. Larson