Those who knew him say John Roger Johnson, or “J.J.,” loved fishing, his family, and sweeping his friends into bone-crushing bearhugs.
Friends and family gathered at the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Gaithersburg to mourn Johnson, the patriarch of a brood of four daughters, 10 grandchildren and four stepchildren.
The Derwood resident was one of two Montgomery County residents who died in the Navy Yard massacre on Sept. 16. Authorities say suspected gunman Aaron Alexis, a troubled Navy Reservist, entered the Washington, D.C., facility and began firing with a shotgun he bought from a store in Lorton, Va.
On Tuesday, hundreds of funeral-goers gathered at a church off Rockville Pike to remember a generous, optimistic man who looked for the best in everybody.
“He was the kindest, happiest man,” Bob Coyne, a longtime friend and fellow churchgoer, said after the service.
Like many there, he recalled Johnson’s paternal nature and how he became accustomed to Johnson’s strong bearhugs.
“Finally, I just said, you’re not going to be around [J.J.] without getting an anaconda-like squeeze ... and I grew to love it,” he said.
Johnson towered well above 6 feet and, in the many photos that have circulated of him since his death, had a radiant smile.
The family did not allow reporters to attend the funeral, but a video showing the homily during the service was later posted online.
In his homily, Good Shepherd Pastor Dave Sonnenberg spoke of Johnson’s faith in God and in the world around him.
“He saw goodness in other people ... when someone can acknowledge that, maybe people can live up to that.”
Johnson’s son-in-law Tony Zagami and his grandson Dino eulogized Johnson, who would have turned 74 in October and who was about to celebrate the birth of his 11th grandchild, according to The Washington Post.
Zagami, who had brain surgery in August, told The Gazette after the service that he stood by as his son Dino read the eulogy he had written. He provided a copy to The Gazette.
The eulogy related a story about Zagami asking Johnson permission to marry his daughter, Erin.
“A big smile came to his face, and he said — and I quote — ‘I am happiest when Erin and you are happy ...’” Zagami wrote.
Johnson’s ability to focus on the positive was a constant refrain among his friends. He lost his first wife, Helen, in 1996 to Lou Gehrig’s disease, before remarrying in 2005 to Judy Greene.
“He has always been happy. ... During the most sorrowful times during his life, he managed to find the silver lining, and that is what he chose to dwell upon,” Zagami wrote.
In earlier interviews with The Gazette, other family members spoke of Johnson’s love of fishing. Johnson often cast his line at Nags Head in North Carolina, where he and his family had a summer home. Later in life, he took his grandchildren with him, trips which several grandchildren referred to in notes published in Johnson’s funeral program.
“I will ALWAYS remember him for FISHING!” one grandchild wrote in the program for the service.
The tragic incidents surrounding Johnson’s death also were at the forefront during the service.
“Last Monday was a painful reminder to us all that far too many people in this world are unraveling, turning to violence,” Sonnenberg said during his homily.
“Far too many are crying out for care all around us, and they need people reaching out to them. And we need public leaders who muster up the courage to make difficult votes to curb gun violence. And we pray they will do that in days to come. ... No family should have to deal with what this family has been dealing with for the past week.”
Seventeen motorcycle units escorted Johnson’s casket and family members to the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Silver Spring, where Johnson’s body was finally laid to rest under a cloudless autumn sky.
Timothy Anderson, a mourner, called Johnson’s death “senseless,” before speaking of Johnson’s capacity for kindness.
“He’s the kind of individual who would have put his arms around that guy,” Anderson said about Johnson would have treated the shooter and anyone else he met.
Vishnu “Kisan” Pandit, 61, of North Potomac, the other Montgomery County resident killed in last week’s shooting, was laid to rest in a private ceremony last week.
Pandit was born in Mumbai, India, in 1951 and moved to the U.S. when he was in his 20s. He moved to Maryland after studying at the University of Michigan, and raised two sons with his wife, Anjali Pandit.
A private service for Pandit was held on Thursday according to The Washington Post.