CORUNNA — This week, Keith Johnson will put on his waders and do what he’s done every summer since 1969: help clean up an area he considers home.
The Friends of the Shiawassee River organization is scheduled to host its 21st Annual River Cleanup Saturday, but Johnson has been involved in volunteering to beautify the area much longer than the event has been around.
For Johnson, who served as mayor of Corunna in the 1980s and has been a part of “just about every board in the city that you can imagine,” the effort is about friendship and community — giving back to an area that has given back to him.
“I feel like I owe this community something,” said Johnson, 73, a Corunna High School graduate. “This is home.”
Johnson’s interest in serving the community was actually sparked several thousand miles away, in Vietnam, where he served as a sergeant in the 1st Cavalry Division of the U.S. Army in the mid-1960s. At the time, he said, the general of his outfit had a pet project of rebuilding refugee villages there.
“They’d get there and swarm the place full of ’copters,” Johnson said. “Move ’em out and move ’em in in one day. It was about saving lives.”
But what the outfit offered in speed and efficiency, it lacked in basic supplies necessary for the war-torn populace it was helping. Johnson’s general went to his outfit to appeal for help from Americans at home.
“I asked my wife, Diane, to send over some clothes, and she said that while she could, the cost was outlandish,” Johnson said. “So I had her talk to Blair Woodman, who was the state rep for this area at the time.
“He took that project by the horns. People in Corunna organized basketball games and everything you could imagine to raise money for clothes, and they ended up getting something like 10,000 pounds of clothes to send over ... We had people in that outfit from Detroit, Los Angeles, New York ... Corunna raised more than any of them.
“The general called me after and said, I don’t know where Corunna is, but when I retire, I’d like to go there ... I thought that was a great thing the community did.
“Remember, the war was not popular in this country at the time. So, when I came back, I got involved in the Jaycees right away, because I wanted to give back.”
The local Jaycees, which according to Johnson once totaled about 180 members, has since folded. It was a leadership training organization for people between 18 and 40. Such able-bodied, eager to help young people were exactly who local attorney James Miner had hoped to recruit for his cause when Johnson attended a meeting in 1969.
“He said he needed some help, because he wanted to turn the river from what it used to be ... James Oliver Curwood wrote that it was a cesspool ... into the doorway of the community,” Johnson said.
“He wanted to get easements and clean the area and build a trail between Owosso and Corunna. All that we thought at the time was that he was very passionate and knowledgeable, so we figured we would help out.”
Johnson recalled the first time he went out to the Gould Street bridge area with Miner and a friend.
On a hot summer day, hacking away at overgrowth, he was reminded of his time in Vietnam. All the while, in the background as they walked, Miner was vigorously discussing his plans for what would later become the James S. Miner Riverwalk.
“Jim said, at one point, ‘Alright, it’s time for a break. Here, sit on this log,’” Johnson said. “And then, he said, pretending he was aghast, ‘Would you look at that? Someone has dumped a cooler right here on the river. What a shame.’
“Then, he opened the cooler. There was beer and ice inside. I guess Jim had put it there before we started. That’s when we knew, not only was he passionate and knowledgeable, but he appreciated us. And after that, he was my friend for the rest of his life.”
Johnson has participated in river cleanup activities ever since. When the Friends of the Shiawassee River group was formed in the 1990s, Johnson immediately became involved. Since then, executive director Lauri Elbing said, he has been a model volunteer.
“I think Keith has that conservation ethic,” Elbing said. “He puts his elbow grease where his heart is. He gets in the dirt, so to speak — picking up garbage, picking up tires and getting in the trenches. To do so, even now at his age, it’s something to see.”
Unfortunately, Johnson said, his efforts might not last much longer due to health and other issues.
“In Ecclesiastes they say, ‘To all things a season.’ I think it’s almost that time for me,” he said. “Diane has been telling me, ‘You’re going to die in that river.’ And I just tell her, that’s OK. They’ll get me at the next river cleanup.”
But he is passing his spirit on to the next generation, having recruited his high-school aged granddaughter to volunteer with him Saturday.
“My generation pretty much screwed up the river — yours has a lot of work to do. But I’ve enjoyed looking at that river my whole life, and I want my grandchildren, as well as their grandchildren, to be able to enjoy it for as long as I have,” he said.