Myron Johnson: 1932 — 2010 by Kenn Fong

[for immediate release] [January 19, 2009]

Myron died Wednesday morning, January 13, at McClure convalescent hospital. He got very sick late last week and was hospitalized. He knew it was the end and refused food. He was lucid when his sister and brother-in-law visited him to say good-bye. He was 77. He is survived by his sister, Carol Wahlers, his ex-wife, and his ex-wife's son, Michael.

Myron suffered another stroke on Christmas Day. Originally, he was hospitalized after having a stroke and a heart attack in March. He received a pacemaker, which he said was functioning very well. I saw him last on January 4. He was lucid, and managed to get out a sentence.

In early December, he had a lot of energy and desire to speak and told me about going to U.S. Opens, and Lone Pines. He told me how two Bay Area chess organizers -- both familiar names -- were working as assistants one of the U.S. Opens and were fired for smoking pot.

He said he became an assistant at Lone Pine almost by accident. One year, a postal chess opponent of patron Louis Statham was on the staff. Unfortunately, he had very little tournament experience. One day there was an adjourned game, and the assistant took the sealed move envelope. When the game was scheduled to resume, the envelope could not be found. Soon after, the staff was short one assistant.

"I insinuated himself onto the staff" he said. Mind you, he had no evil intent; that's just Myron's sardonic humor. He started to help set up the boards and put them away after each round and straightened out the tournament hall. At the end of the tournament, Director Isaac Kashdan gave him an honorarium check. Myron politely refused it, but Kash insisted, and finally he accepted it. The following Winter, Myron wrote Kashdan saying he was coming back to Lone Pine again as a spectator and would be happy to help out. Kashdan enthusiastically accepted his offer and Myron was then a valued member of the staff for the remaining tournaments.

It was at Lone Pine where he met many of chess's elite. One year he stayed over an extra day, and "I was lucky enough to have lunch with [Danish grandmaster and a former candidate for the World Championship] Bent Larsen," who spoke with me about world history and chess history. He met two former World Champions, Tigran Petrossian and Vassily Smyslov, and about a third of the world's grandmasters at the time.

At Lone Pine, Myron met Arthur Dake, the retired chess master who lived in Portland and worked as a driver's license examiner for the state of Oregon. He and Dake formed a lifelong friendship that spanned two decades. Myron visited Dake at his home several times, and a few years ago attended a formal tribute reception for Dake given by some local chess organization.

Myron was a very loyal friend of mine for 42 years. I met him not long after I started playing tournament chess and attending tournaments as a fan and later as an organizer. He discovered that we lived in the same neighborhood near the Grand Lake Theatre inOakland, and from then on we'd bump into each other or he'd call and say, "be ready" and he would pick me up and we'd go together. Twice he gave me round-trip rides to Lone Pine. I don't think we ever played against each other as he was a strong "A" and I was never more than a high "C" player.

Myron was quite a loner. He had been married but subsequently was divorced and I never heard him talk about dating or having anyone special in his life, although he remained close friends with his former wife for over 40 years. He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley; a history major. He was an amateur historian with a strong interest in California history, and read every book written by Kevin Starr. On one of my visits, he talked at length about the circumstances leading into World War II, quoting a book he'd read last Spring. His sister told me he'd studied World War II quite thoroughly.

He also had an interest in geneology, and discovered his great-grandfather's diary of 4 years in the Minnesota Reserves on the Union side of the Civil War. I remember contacting the Library of Congress on his behalf (it had not occurred to him, and I did it as a surprise) and he was very grateful to receive some photocopies of pages from reference books talking about his relative's platoon. His sister reported finding a four-foot stack of research notebooks and reference books. Myron had made voluminous notes and annotations referring to the diary. He'd researched the geography, weather, clothing, food, medical treatment, and other sociological details so the diary could be put into context.

I learned that Myron was close to his ex-wife's son from the time he was born. He taught Michael to play golf and play chess, and tutored him in history, Latin, and other subjects. They remained close, and into adulthood, Myron was a guest of Michael's family at every holiday. On Thanksgiving, they arranged for a special van to take Myron in his wheelchair to Michael's house, and they enjoyed dinner together. They had planned to be together again for Christmas Day; sadly, Myron suffered another stroke the day before.

I don't know what other jobs he had held but for the time I knew him, he drove a cab. There were times I'd be walking around in downtown Oakland, waiting for a bus and he would pull up in his cab and he'd say, "get in," and he'd drive me home.

He guarded his privacy very jealously. Only Thursday, I learned the name of his sister, Carol Wahlers, who lives in Portland. Myron was somewhat prickly. I remember dozens of phone calls where the phone would ring, it would be Myron. He'd give me some fact he'd gleaned from reading Jack Peter's chess column in the Los Angeles Times or some bit of chess news he had heard. Then he would very abruptly end the call. I'd have to call him back if I had any news or other supporting information.

Last August, I gave him a copy of Guthrie McClain and Bob Burger's book on Lone Pine, Grandmaster Chess, which had been reprinted. He wanted me to buy a copy for him, but I just gave him the one Dennis Fritzinger gave me. Although I did not have permission, I recovered the book from his room. It gave him a good deal of pleasure to have it. He had compiled some cross tables for Lone Pine and subsequently one of Kashdan's assistant directors, Myron Lieberman, used them to calculate estimated FIDE ratings.

Three years ago I moved from the house in Oakland I shared with my family and later just my Mother. The entire time I lived in that neighborhood, we'd bump into each other once a month or so on the street. It was very nice to see his familiar face. He always had just enough time to say hello and our in person meetings were much the same as the phone calls. I remember pursuing him on one or two occasions when he had said all he wanted to say, and then politely, but abruptly, said, "Goodbye," and then walked away.

Myron was born in 1932. He grew up in Escalon in central California, near Modesto. He learned chess from his father, who enjoyed the game although he never competed in tournaments or clubs. Myron belonged to a Swedish Lutheran church there, which celebrated its centennial this summer, and his sister flew in from Portland to attend. I never got a chance to meet her or his ex-wife.

Myron never really participated in the Internet age, although I know he would have loved it because he was always interested in chess columns. He read George Koltanowski's column in the San Francisco Chronicle every day. He read I. A. Horowitz's column in the Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday New York Times and later read every column by Robert Byrne. I know he also bought the Los Angeles Times every Sundayfrom the Grand Lake Smoke Shop -- where I also worked for while -- so he could read Isaac Kashdan's column. I know he was very happy when Jack Peters got the column.

He read Horowitz's column in the Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday New York Times and later read every column by Robert Byrne. I know he also bought the Los Angeles Times every Sundayfrom the Grand Lake Smoke Shop -- where I also worked for while -- so he could read Isaac Kashdan's column. I know he was very happy when Jack Peters got the column. When I worked at DeLauer's News Agency in the early 80s, he would occasionally buy the London Times to read Raymond Keene's column. I know he also went to the library to read Kavalek's column in the Washington Post, which was discontinued at the end of the year. I wanted to tell him this Wednesday night, but did not get the chance.

Over the past few months, I read Myron a few of Dennis Fritzinger's poems. He got a good deal of pleasure from hearing them. When I saw him last, I played a voice mail recording of Dennis reciting Robert Frost's "Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening." It's a bit ironical, as for the last decade or so, Myron began to resemble Frost more and more and in the end, seemed to be his doppelganger.

Myron's death was not a great shock to me, as he had looked moribund on several visits, and about half the time was so weak he could not participate in the conversations beyond thanking me for the visit. But he was lucid right up to the end, and although discouraged by the recent stroke, was participating in physical therapy. He was somewhat grateful to hear that his friends and acquaintances cared, but I also got the sense that he didn't want me to tell everyone every detail. It was that Scandanavian sense of privacy and I apologize to him if I hurt his feelings.

Myron was a Korean War-era veteran. He was cremated on Thursday morning and his remains may be interred in Escalon or in a Veterans cemetery. His sister said there will be a memorial service in Escalon but no plans have been finalized.

If you have any memories about Myron, I would be very glad to read or hear them. If anyone knows how to reach Jim Stewart, please tell him. [Jim Stewart has been found and notified.] He and Myron (and their late friend, Larry Ledgerwood, who was a master) used to have dinner each Sunday night on Grand Avenue, and did so for at least 20 years. Speaking of Larry, a week before he died in the early 80s, Larry was Board One for my Lakeview Library Chess Club at the Northern California Team Championships, which we won by a big margin. Myron later ribbed me, saying that playing for my chess team brought on Larry's fatal heart attack. "You killed him!" v His sister, Carol Wahlers, would be grateful if you'd share any remembrances of him.


Kenn Fong

I first met Myron in 1975 during a tournament at the Monterey Chess Center. I was looking at chess books at Ted Yudacufski’s store counter and he came up to me and complimented me on my current tournament standings. He was so friendly and diffident, that I couldn’t help liking him immediately. Over the next decade, we met infrequently... usually at tournaments. He was always very friendly, but reticent about himself. I started seeing him on a more regular basis when I started working at Games of Berkeley in 1987. He’d come in to look at books and stay to chat. During this period, I confided to him my interest in California chess history. After that, he always brought a California magazine or pamphlet for me – sometimes for money, more often as a gift. In 1995, he came to see me while I was at the store and wanted to sell me an entire box of California items... he wanted $100. I wanted the buy the box from him, as I could tell he needed the money, but unfortunately I was broke (not much money in retail). I think we parted as friends. Soon after I changed jobs and started working in Fremont. I never saw him again. Much later, I heard that the Mechanics’ Institute acquired his chess collection; or at least part of it.

– Kerry Lawless

Myron Johnson (77) was born on March 18, 1932 in Boise, Idaho, and died on January 13. in Oakland, California.

His family moved to Escalon, California, in 1938, the same year that Myron began the first grade in elementary school.

He graduated from Escalon High School (1950), Modesto Junior College and The University of California in 1961.

He married Judy Nelson in 1959 and was later divorced.

Myron worked as a cab driver most of his life. He had a very active interest in chess, both as a player and as a student of the game. Before his death he was doing a genealogical study of his great grandfather, who wrote a diary during the civil war. This diary formed the basis of his study.

Myron served in the army at the end of the Korean Conflict.

He is survived by his sister, Carol Wahlers, Portland, Oregon, plus his former wife, four nieces and nephews and many friends.

There will be a Memorial Service held in Saron Lutheran Church, Escalon, on Saturday, February 6, at 10:30 a.m.

On the same day, a time of remembrance will be held at the Sequoyah Country Club at 4550 Heafey Road in Oakland from 4:00 – 6:00 p.m. for Myron’s friends to share their memories.

Oakland Tribune