COVID-19, A Love Story: One couple fought the pandemic together — until ‘Pop’ lost the battle
Gene and Doris Johnson were doing well in assisted living before the coronavirus changed everything about how the 94-year-old couple could connect to their loved ones. At least they still had each other — until Gene, a well-known teacher and coach, died last week.
Like so many others living out their golden years in imperfect but manageable fashion, Gene and Doris Johnson got sucker-punched by COVID-19.
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Family and friends could no longer come visit the 94-year-olds, married 73 years, in their assisted living rooms at Valley Convalescent Hospital in Watsonville or bring them home for special gatherings.
With the help of nurses, they still got dressed up nice and fancy for both their grandson’s wedding in April and their own 73rd-anniversary celebration in September — even if they could only share those moments with their loved ones via Zoom.
Then in December, both Gene and Doris tested positive for COVID.
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Gene — a beloved longtime coach and teacher at Cabrillo College and Watsonville High who had suffered a stroke a year earlier — was hit hard, bouncing back and forth between hospitalization and assisted living three different times.
Even though Doris had lifelong lung and heart issues that put her at high risk, she fared much better. As her granddaughter Jackie Cameron puts it, “Grandma just straight up kicked COVID’s ass.”
There was a moment where it was looking better for Gene, who would wheel down the hall to Doris’s room for lunch, games and puzzles each day.
But suddenly his appetite waned, as did his capacity for games and puzzles, and his prognosis turned grim. Doris held his hand in hers as he died on Wednesday night, uttering to her granddaughter “I don’t want to be here without him.”
Gene’s passing, just 36 hours before his 95th birthday, adds to the 113 Santa Cruz County deaths related to COVID-19. More than 70% of COVID deaths in Santa Cruz County are attributed to nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.
But Harold Eugene Johnson’s legacy transcends any stats and any remorse about being lost to an ill-timed pandemic.
A coach’s legacy
Few people affected more lives of young people in this county than Gene Johnson, a coach of 48 years who watched six former pupils go on to play in the NFL.
Many felt like they’d won the lottery being part of the extended family of Pop & Grandma Johnson. It was one that exemplified a kinder, simpler era — one where a California kid turned World War II Navy submarine spotter could marry a Southern belle in Savannah, Georgia, and bring her back cross country to forge the American dream in rural Watsonville.
And now with her beloved partner gone, and COVID restrictions showing no signs of easing up, the family worries about how Doris will handle her ongoing state of isolation — grieving the loss of her best friend of 73 years with mostly just a tablet as her means of outside connection.
“I told my family that the next two weeks are gonna make or break her,” said Cameron, who works with people like her grandma in assisted living. “But Grandma’s a tough lady.”
‘You can run, you can do it’
Doris answered the phone in Room 10 Sunday and immediately wanted to tell a story. There had been a former player of Coach’s, she recalled — the family called Gene, ‘Pop’ but his player family knew him as Coach — and that player had relayed the story of how Johnson’s voice had come to him almost like a Jedi on his shoulder in a moment of real-life crisis.
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“He had been trapped in a foxhole somewhere fighting and thought to himself ‘What do I do?’” she said. “He said ‘I remember Coach Johnson’s voice saying ‘You can run, you can do it.’”
That was the epitome of Johnson the coach. Most coaches will tell you they’re in it to teach life lessons. Johnson was better positioned than most, having been a Naval gunnery mate who had served time along the Atlantic tracking German subs and in the Pacific guarding Japanese war prisoners in Guam.
One of Johnson’s prized possessions was a painted coconut shell made for him by a Japanese prisoner who appreciated how he was being treated. “He really believed that if you gave respect, you got even more respect back in return,” said Jonhson’s, son Robert, “and that’s always what he taught us.”
Three of his former players who went on to NFL careers gushed over his life savviness and approachability this week. One of them broke down in tears upon receiving the news.
‘Saved my life’
“That man saved my life — he got after me and gave me incentive to come to school,” said an emotional Sherman Cocroft, a Watsonville native who Johnson convinced to play defensive back for him in the early 1980s at Cabrillo before going on to San Jose State and a five-year NFL career.
Brendon Ayanbadejo, the Santa Cruz High grad who parlayed Cabrillo success into a linebacker spot at UCLA and then a 10-year NFL career, one that included a Super Bowl ring, called Johnson “worldly and wise.”
“He was the kind of coach you could just go talk to. And with all the adrenaline coursing through a locker room, that’s rare,” he said. “It’s not usually your oldest coach you’d go talk to about your young man problems. But you could talk to him about so much more than football.”
Femi Ayanbadejo, Brendon’s older brother, and also a Super Bowl ring owner, called Johnson “a bit of a throwback” and echoed those sentiments of unusual wisdom: “I saw him kind of like an overseer, a grandmaster Jedi type, a Yoda if you will.”
An example ‘Just so far beyond’
The other thing Doris wanted others to know about her guy of 73 years: “He was like the perfect man to me. He always treated me so well. He took care of me. He never said a bad word to me. He was always giving.”
And the giving went well beyond Doris and the innumerable students and athletes he mentored along the way.
He was the guy who in “retirement,” would paint peoples’ fences and houses, help out with Elk’s Club activities and other community events, and open up his and Doris’ household on Alta Vista Avenue to a constant hum of extended family activity.
Meanwhile, he helped out coaching at Cabrillo until he was 86 — volunteering to help keep the softball program from folding for a season, then loving it so much that he stuck around for nine.
“Pop and Grandma’s family are the single greatest thing that ever happened to me,” said Cameron, who is a step-granddaughter. “Their house was the focal point of our childhood, always a safe spot. I can’t ever remember hearing them argue. Their example was just so far beyond. Nothing like my generation knows.”
That wasn’t lost on the nurses who have cared for the couple at Valley Convalescent. After Pop passed away, as Doris held his hand in hers, the procession of staff that came by to express their condolences and had been touched by the couple’s presence “blew us away,” said their daughter Jill Carolan.
The family celebrated what would’ve been Pop’s 95th birthday Saturday by delivering a cake to Doris that had “Happy Heavenly Birthday” inscribed on it “and we sang happy birthday to Pop in heaven — it was wonderful,” Doris said.
The next challenge
But now, with pandemic restrictions not likely to end anytime soon, comes the next challenge. How does someone who lost their partner of 73 years adapt without any in-person contact beyond her care providers?
Doris Johnson has kicked COVID to the curb, she’s got her tablet in hand, Zoom down pat and a healthy Rolodex of family and friends at the ready.
She seems determined to keep the fight going strong on her own.
“I’ve held up pretty good here,” she said. “But one of these days, once we’ve gotten past this a bit, I’m probably going to let it all out and have a good cry.”