Madison murder victim remembered as quiet and powerful voiceMADISON — Norm Johnson was a lot more than a murder victim, a name in a crime story. He was a husband and father, a teacher and coach, and a well-liked and admired resident of this small eastern South Dakota city.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
MADISON — Norm Johnson was a lot more than a murder victim, a name in a crime story. He was a husband and father, a teacher and coach, and a well-liked and admired resident of this small eastern South Dakota city.
“He was special,” said his wife of 53 years, Barbara Johnson, of Madison. Norm Johnson, 72, was killed Jan. 31 when he was shot after he opened the door of his house, which is across the street from Memorial Creek in the heart of Madison. A high school classmate of his has been charged with first-degree murder for shooting Johnson twice in the face, killing him instantly.
Carl Ericsson was charged with first-degree murder after he was indicted by a Lake County grand jury. On May 1, his lawyer announced that Ericsson would plead guilty but mentally ill to second-degree murder. The next court appearance is set for Tuesday.
Barbara Johnson and her two daughters were in court for the May 1 hearing. It’s a tough experience to go through, she admits.
Ericsson, 73, remains in in the Lake County Jail in Madison, where he is being held without bond.
Ericsson’s brother said in an affidavit that Ericsson was a sports manager at Madison High years ago and there was an incident in which Johnson did something to him. Carl Ericsson then held a grudge for decades.
Johnson’s family and friends said they cannot imagine him doing something to harm anyone, even all those years ago. That’s not the person they knew, not the man who left such a lasting mark in Madison.
‘A great guy’
Norm Johnson was born June 25, 1939, in Madison to Norman B. and Charlene (Laughlin) Johnson. It was his hometown, and he never strayed far from it. He graduated from Madison High School, where he starred in sports, was a popular student and dated the girl who became his wife.
Johnson attended Augustana College, in Sioux Falls, where he played football, before coming home to Madison to earn a bachelor of arts degree in education from General Beadle State Teachers College, which is now known as Dakota State University. Johnson later earned a master’s degree from South Dakota State University, in Brookings.
Norm married Barb Halseth on Sept. 19, 1958, at Trinity Lutheran Church in Madison, the same church were his funeral was held last winter. The couple has two daughters, Terri Wiblemo, of Marshall, Minn., and Beth Ribstein, of Brookings, and four grandchildren.
Barbara Johnson said her husband was generally a quiet man, but he would “spout off” if he had something to say. She said his sense of humor was noted during his funeral service.
“To live with three women, he had to have a sense of humor,” Barbara Johnson said. She said Norm Johnson was never the kind of person who spent summers on the couch. He stayed busy when he wasn’t at the school.
He managed the Madison swimming pool for years and was on a painting crew during the summers. He served on the Madison Community Hospital Board and Lake County Red Cross Board.
But schools were at the center of his career and life. Johnson taught and coached at Madison High School for more than three decades. Tom Osterberg, of Madison, taught and coached with Johnson for more than 20 years.
“Oh, Norm was very pleasant,” Osterberg said. “He was always in good spirits, got along with just about everybody that I ever knew. He enjoyed coaching, he enjoyed teaching.”
Johnson spent much of his free time with his wife, Osterberg said. “He was kind of one of those guys who was very close to his family,” he said. “Norm just kind of stayed close to home.” Osterberg said for several years, many Madison teachers got up “in the wee hours of the morning” and went to Lake Madison to fish in the dark before the school day began.
They would enjoy the peace and quiet and then say goodbye as dawn approached before meeting later in the morning at school.
“That’s one thing Norm liked, was fishing,” Osterberg said. “He was a great guy.”
“We loved fishing,” Barbara Johnson said. “I grew up fishing, he grew up fishing. This is Lake County. There were always lakes near.”
Jon Lauck, a Madison native who is now an adviser to U.S. Sen. John Thune, said the Johnson family ran a general store in the tiny hamlet of Junius, located just west of Madison, when Norm Johnson was growing up. Lauck said Johnson was a dedicated teacher.
“He was a great guy in the class. He taught English and language arts,” Lauck said. “The thing I remember about his class, it was real miserable work. We diagrammed sentences. He taught it with some panache and made it more interesting than it really was.”
Lauck said Johnson had students read Mark Twain and Herman Melville, “you know, the biggies.”
Johnson was around 6 feet tall and dressed well and was always neatly groomed. He wanted to set an example for his students.
He was also a handsome man, which made an impact on the girls in his classes, Lauck said.
He was an avid Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Twins fan and took his grandchildren to Twins games. He liked to play the piano. After he retired from high school teaching and coaching, he worked as a school custodian, and then taught elementary physical education.
Later, he took a part-time job at Jones Ace Hardware in downtown Madison. “He wanted to keep busy,” Barbara Johnson said.
Luella “Lu” Poppen, the store manager, said he was a dream employee who was greeted by name by almost every customer who came in. “He was wonderful,” Poppen said. “Very hard worker, had a good wit about him, everyone knew him. They always visited with him and they all reminisced about their time in school with him as a coach and a teacher.
“The young people who came into the store, he took time to listen to their plans, the sports stuff they planned. The college young men and women, he always took time to listen to them, what they were doing.” He did more than listen, she said.
When some local people lost a home to a fire, Johnson called them and asked them to stop at the store. He quietly handed them an envelope with money in it, Poppen said.
Johnson worked at the store from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday for five years, but when the economy slowed, he “graciously” gave up hours to employees with young families, Poppen said.
“They need it more than I do,” he said, according to Poppen. “I just want to get out of the house.”
He still filled in as needed, she said, and also stopped by the store to visit. When customers came in and spotted him visiting, they would ask questions and he would direct them to the correct aisle and answer questions. “He would lead them up to the counter and say, ‘This is the one place I can’t help you,’ ” Poppen said. “He’d say, ‘I’m not on the clock.’ ”
Constanze and Dirk Hagmaier, the married couple who serve as co-pastors of the Trinity Lutheran Church in Madison, officiated at his funeral in February. It was a massive event, with more than 600 people in attendance. Every seat in the pews was filled and extra chairs had to be set up. His daughter and grandsons spoke at the service. “He was a member of Trinity Lutheran,” Constanze Hagmaier said. “His family are lifelong members. He and his wife grew up in Trinity.” Over the decades, he was a member of many church boards, served as an usher and sang in the choir. She said Johnson was a powerful presence in the community, although not in a flashy way. He got things done and didn’t seek credit for doing so, the pastor said.
“He was quiet in his nature, but he always looked out for the ones in need,” she said.
When he felt strongly that someone needed something, in his quiet presence he made sure the need was met. “We would say, ‘We need to check into that,’ ” Hagmaier said. “He never demanded something of someone else to do without saying first, ‘This is how I would like to help.’ ”
The Saturday before the shooting, Poppen dropped by the Johnsons’ house for a visit. She had become close friends with Johnson and his wife.
The initial reports of the shooting were hard to grasp, Poppen said.
“I still can’t believe it,” she said. “It is just unbelievable that it happened in Madison, South Dakota, something like this.”
A night of terror
The night of the fatal shooting was filled with terror for many in Madison, as Ericsson allegedly drove around town and peered into homes, using a flashlight to search for someone.
“Everybody you ever talked to — everybody — was tense,” Osterberg said. “There were so darn many rumors flying around. Everybody I talked to had their guns loaded. It was just bizarre.”
Social media helped spread the fear. “Facebook’s a good tool, but in a case like this, there were some pretty wild rumors and accusations out there,” Osterberg said.
There were claims of multiple shooters and that several people had been shot, he said. At one point, there was a rumor that retired teachers were targeted, and retirees were called and advised to be on the alert.
Barbara Johnson said the fear was all too real. On top of her husband being murdered at his front door, the fear and uncertainty of that night still has her traumatized.
“It was horrible,” she said. “I hope I come out of it. It’s been terrible.”
Poppen said while the shooting was tragic and terrifying, she credits local authorities with handling it well.
“I think the Madison Police Department took care of the situation as information came available to them,” she said. Rumors were flying but they were dispelled by correct information, Poppen said. Still, it left a deep mark on the city.
“It definitely ruined your naiveté about this type of thing,” she said. Hagmaier said Madison was changed by the shooting.
“You know, I think the nervousness will stay for just a little bit,” she said. “It’s something you cannot wrap your head around. It’s hard to come to grips with it, and that’s still evident. It will be for a while.”