Merle Walter Johnson

Walter Johnson, a pioneering Alaska physician known to many as the father of the Community Health Aide Program, died Saturday, June 27, 2015, surrounded by family at his son’s home in Anchorage. He was 92.  

Two gatherings for reflection and remembrance will be held: in Homer at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, July 22, 2015, at 40773 McLay Road, and in Anchorage at 4 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 21, 2015, at Fox Hollow Chalet/Tanglewood, 11701 Brayton Drive, Anchorage. Light lunch will be provided at both.  In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to the University of Alaska. 

Born Merle Richard Walter Johnson on July 20, 1922, to Claus Edwin Johnson and Reka (Linden) Johnson in Osceola, Neb., a small Swedish-American community, he spent his formative years on the family farm. By bicycle and boat, he made his way to Alaska first in 1941. He enrolled in the University of Alaska in Fairbanks in 1942, while working summers around Wiseman nestled in the Brooks Range where the Arctic and its people captured his heart. During World War II, he was stationed as a medical laboratory technician at Ladd Field, Fairbanks. 

Walter completed undergraduate studies in biology and anthropology in 1948, and took his medical training at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, graduating in 1953. He began general practice in Bethel, Alaska, in 1955 — becoming the first graduate of UAF to earn an M.D .and return to the Territory to practice — and the same year was commissioned by the U.S. Public Health Service. Taking a specialty in Internal Medicine, Walter had assignments in Chicago, Boston, Memphis and Seattle. He also served as a medical officer for the Peace Corps in 1962.

Returning again to Alaska in 1963 as Medical Director and Tuberculosis Control Officer for the Alaska Native Medical Center, Walter was part of the team that carried out a treatment plan instrumental in halting deaths from TB in the state. As Chief of Medicine until his retirement from the USPHS in 1980, Walter hired many of the young doctors who continued healthcare progress in TB, cardiology, surgery and other areas. 

For the next nine years Walter continued to nurture the growth of the Community Health Aide Program through work with the University of Alaska. He assisted in and supported the formation of the Alaska Federation of Natives, the initiative for bike paths in Anchorage, and was the co-founder of the Alaska Health Sciences Library. He is remembered for his steadfast commitment to accessible primary health care and preventative medicine.

Retiring to Homer in 1994, Walter soon planted a tree-fruit orchard. Now containing some 90 trees and nearly 50 apple varieties, as well as cherry, pear and kiwi, the orchards continue to inspire new generations, and to demonstrate what can be accomplished in “the rocking chair” years.

Walter was preceded in death by his parents; brothers, Reuben, Harold, Claus, and Vernon; sisters, Vera, and Viola; first wife, Mary Katherine (Moore); granddaughter, Lauren Lecomte; all 51 first cousins, and other relatives, friends and colleagues of his generation.

He is survived by his wife, Judith James, of Homer; beloved sons, Eric (wife Antonia) of Anchorage, Alex of Bellingham, Wash.; and Charles of Seattle; treasured daughter, Ann, of Fairbanks; two grandsons, and one granddaughter. 

Walter also is survived by former wife, Susan (Hudson) Johnson of Homer; nephew Kent Johnson (wife Carolyn) of Seattle and Homer, and many other relatives in Nebraska, Arizona, California and Sweden.

He also leaves dear friends and colleagues in Homer: Neil McArthur, Anne Wieland, Achim and Renee Jahnke, and Carol Harding. And William English II, Pete Mjos and Karen Ruud, George Rhyneer, Sr, and Linda Curda, all of Anchorage; Syd Stealey of Fairbanks, Henry Wilde of Bangkok, Thailand; and other friends and colleagues too numerous to list.