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‘Dr. J.’ lived his passion

In this undated photo, Milton Johnson  leads a rehearsal  of Handel’s “Messiah” at First Presbyterian Church.  (File / The Spokesman-Review)
In this undated photo, Milton Johnson leads a rehearsal of Handel’s “Messiah” at First Presbyterian Church. (File / The Spokesman-Review)

Milton Johnson, longtime ‘Messiah’ leader and Whitworth music chairman, dies at 89

Milton Johnson, the chairman of Whitworth College’s music department for 27 years, first conducted Handel’s “Messiah” on Dec. 7, 1941.

As the orchestra in Alexandria, Minn., was practicing that afternoon, the bass soloist, an Army reservist, who was supposed to sing the aria “Why Do the Nations So Furiously Rage?” was called to active duty.

“That night, instead of his solo, we had a period of silence,” Johnson recalled in a 1980 Spokesman-Review interview.

It was a dramatic start to Johnson’s long connection to the “Messiah,” which he conducted more than 30 times in Spokane.

Johnson, who organized performances of the “Messiah” at the Spokane Opera House, Spokane Coliseum and other locations, died June 29 in Arizona. The cause of death was listed as late-stage Alzheimer’s, said his wife, Joyce Johnson. He was 89.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Thursday at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Spokane. Johnson led the choir there from 1959 until 1988.

Johnson, who played clarinet and cello, was serving as minister of music at University Presbyterian Church in Seattle when he accepted an offer to become chairman of Whitworth’s music department in 1957.

His students came to know him as “Dr. J.”

Peggy Burrough, who was a member of the Whitworth Choir, said Johnson was a significant influence on her throughout the 38 years she worked as a music educator in Puyallup.

“He was our dad away from home,” Burrough said. “We trusted him and, more importantly, he really trusted us.”

Those who knew him said he was passionate about music. “He slept it, and ate it, and dreamt it,” Joyce Johnson said. He once conducted a concert in a body cast after breaking his back.

Many of the “Messiah” programs in Spokane were singalongs – where anyone interested could come for one rehearsal the same day as the performance.

“For me, the importance of the ‘Messiah’ is the way the music is wedded to the message,” Johnson said in the 1980 interview. “It’s not just a series of arias and choruses, but, quoting a famous Scandinavian musicologist, ‘It is a representation of the fulfillment of Redemption through the Redeemer, Messiah.’ ”

At a 1993 “Messiah” practice, Johnson’s passion was on display. “Keep it going and keep it lighter,” he urged the musicians, according to a news account. “This isn’t Easter or Good Friday – it’s joy! Jumping joy!”

Two decades after his 1984 retirement as the Whitworth Choir director, Johnson took the baton and led a chorus of alumni from the mid-1960s for “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” a song the Whitworth Choir frequently performed on tour.

“It was like he did not miss a beat,” said Burrough, who organized the 2005 gathering and arranged for Johnson’s surprise appearance. “We could hardly sing. We were so filled with emotion.”