TIES THAT BIND - Part
Ojai man's lessons go beyond fly fishing
By Bret Bradigan
The old man's eyes water with
the effort of bringing them into focus. And his gait is often
unsteady, as though he treads on uneven ground. His hands hold
steady enough for the delicate work he does, but a bout with
an immune system disease last year caused his kidneys to shut
down, and the treatment for that gave him diabetes.
He's 77 years old, and these ailments are the price you pay for
the privilege of living so long.
It's clear that Ray Johnson's days are dwindling. This is how
he chooses to spend them.
The kids peer over the unfamiliar instrument, which appears as
aluminum grasshoppers fastened to the table's edge. They wrap
thread with uncertainty, starting and stopping again. Gradually,
though, with doubtful tugs, the arm lengths of red thread and
chenille in the needle vise begin to take shape as woolly buggers,
one of the simplest flies to tie, and one of the most effective.
"Pull it down so the hackles show through," he said.
"Cool," replied Jesse Marcus, 15, a sophomore at Chaparral
High School, peering at his creation. "There's a bug that
looks like this?"
Johnson, neatly dressed in polished workboots, creased jeans
and flannel shirt, leans over the table, steadying himself on
the edge, scrunching up his glasses to get a better view. It
is only after several rounds each of his patient instruction
and gentle-voiced coaxing that these students end up with something
that could fool a trout.
"You should be able to get it down to two or three minutes,"
he said, directing the efforts of Noé Rodriquez, 17, a
senior. "With a big abdomen," Johnson said, as he teased
out a loop of thread. Rodriguez asked, "Why? So you can
catch a bigger fish?" Johnson's face creased into a smile.
"That's a positive attitude."
None of these students at Chaparral High School have tied a fly
or cast a fly rod before they met Johnson.
Odds are that few will again.
Yet the lesson they learn isn't so much about trout and their
habits and the ways to fool them. It is about what one generation
has to teach another, about taking time away from their immediate
concerns to participate, in a meaningful way, in the life of
They witness what it takes to create a community like Ojai, the
countless hours of volunteer service that form the currency of
its social capital.
Ray Johnson was born on a fall day in 1925 on a ranch in south-central
Wyoming, a town of several hundred people called Baggs. It was,
and is, a wide open land, surrounded by the serrated peaks of
the Rocky Mountains, with the Little Snake River running through
Johnson grew up at a time and in a place when national unemployment
soared past 25 percent, and regional unemployment in the intermountain
region, where mines shuttered their gates and cattle ranches
went from high-dollar auctions to substinence farming, was much
"There were two grocery stores in town, and not enough business
to support either one," he said.
What jobs existed were mainly created by the federal government.
And Johnson's father, who lost his ranch in the Depression's
early years, was one of the lucky few. When he was hired as director
of the Works Progress Administration for Carbon County, he came
one of the creators of those jobs.
"They built roads, dams, bridges, you name it," he
The family moved several times during Johnson's childhood, mostly
moving up the Little Snake River Valley. When he was a sophomore
in high school, Johnson, his father, mother, and sister moved
to Wilmington, Calif., near San Pedro, when his father had landed
a job for Getty Oil.
World War II had brought about an end to the Great Depression
and had begun an era of great mobility, and opportunity, for
the Johnson family, as it had for millions of Americans.
Johnson, though not a large man, played sports with outsized
spunk, lettering in football, basketball and baseball at Banning
High School. After graduating in 1943, he went to Compton Junior
College on an athletic scholarship. After one semester, however,
his education was interrupted by enlistment in the U.S. Navy.
Most of his tour was spent at the San Diego Repair Base, as an
athletic specialist, coaching softball teams and organizing other
sports leagues to engage the interest of sailors waiting for
overseas deployments. He was demobilized at Terminal Island,
five miles from home. "They gave me 15 cents travel pay,"
Back in Compton, Johnson was the halfback on the first-ever Junior
Rose Bowl in 1946, and, in 1947, played in the first-ever Texas
Rose Bowl versus a team from Tyler, Texas.
This was nothing new. His high school baseball team was state
champs two years running. "I played on five teams,"
he said. "Every one was a championship."
After finishing his two years at Compton, Johnson took a partial
athletic scholarship, along with his GI Bill, to Pepperdine University,
to play on their baseball squad. "It was the sorriest conditions
you ever saw," he said. "But they had the most magnificent
coach." That coach, John Scolinas, won, and lost, more games
than any other coach in Division 1 history, Johnson said.
At five feet, eight inches in height, and 130 pounds, Ray Johnson
did not have the luxury of relying on brute physicality. Scolinas
taught him to compensate with finesse, with performing a role
within the larger scheme of the team. "No matter how small
your size, everybody has something to do, he taught us. I was
good at hitting, good at turning the double play, could steal
a lot of bases." He was not so good, he admits, at hitting
the curveball, which put his major league dreams to rest. The
team's professional pedigree included, however, the nephew of
Hall of Fame pitcher Eddie Plank, and the coach himself was named
to Pepperdine's Hall of Fame.
"I was 25 years old when I graduated, was married, so I
started teaching school in Orange County," he said. He began
his teaching career at Westminster Junior High, then moved to
Rancho Alamito in Garden Grove. He retired after 36 years and
he and his wife, Pat, moved to Ojai in 1991 "because our
oldest daughter lives here, and our first grandchild," he
He's taught the craft of building custom fly rods for decades,
as well as fly tying and casting. Johnson began volunteering
several times a year at Chaparral High School about eight years
ago. "I look forward to that so much, getting to know these
kids," he said. Johnson said that Garden Grove's population
was "smaller than Ojai's, maybe 7,000" when he started
teaching. It is now estimated at 169,000 people.
After having a front-row seat to Orange County's explosive growth,
he recognizes that Ojai is different, in ways that aren't always
easy to quantify. Life's pace is more deliberate, people take
time to get to know one another, and perhaps there is a heightened
sense of obligation to set aside time for each other. But that's
the way it is in most small towns, he admits. "There don't
seem to be any bad people here," he said.
Next: Active volunteers like
Ray Johnson's are becoming more and more scarce. And that growing
disengagement from civic life has real costs.
2003 The Ojai Valley News
to the news
JOHNSON helps Chatel Powell tie a trout fly.