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A Passion to Serve

At left, Marilyn and Peter Johansen, September 30, 2008  often read their bible at  home.   (Debbie Noda / The Modesto Bee)
At left, Marilyn and Peter Johansen, September 30, 2008 often read their bible at home. (Debbie Noda / The Modesto Bee)

He has been the mayor of Modesto, co-owner of a successful business and an assistant pastor at one of the city's largest churches. He's raised tons of money for schools and has a road and a high school named after him. He's on a first-name basis with many leaders in government and business — when Peter Johansen talks, people listen.

But when listing the achievements in his life, the 88-year-old first notes this: "One of the things that God has blessed me with is that unbelievers have called me for advice and prayer several times. My faith is the most important thing in my life."

It wasn't always that way.

Johansen was born in Arcata. When he was 7 months old, his parents moved to a home between Empire and Waterford, "which is now Johansen Road," he said. His family moved again, to a dairy west of Turlock, when he was in second grade. Through all his childhood and teenage years, he attended church.

"My mother had me in church in her arms, so I grew up in church," he said.

When he was in his 20s, he became a Sunday school teacher and even served on the church board.

"However, I didn't have a personal relationship with Jesus," Johansen said this week. "I was meeting with a friend in Hotel Covell for lunch. I said, 'I wish I could be like you. You're always so joyous in the Lord. You're willing to share the Lord with waitresses and anyone.' And he said, 'Can I ask you a couple of questions?' I said sure. He said, 'Have you ever asked the Lord Jesus into your life to be savior and Lord and to forgive your errors and sins?' I said, 'No. I want to.' So that day he said, 'I'll model a prayer for you. If it meets the intentions of your heart, you say it in your own words.' And I did."

He was 31 years old.

"After I knew I would be in heaven with the Lord Jesus when I left this world, I was excited about it," Johansen said. "I began to share a little bit with people, but I didn't have a lot of experience."

Brother a big influence

One of the biggest spiritual influences in his life was his youngest brother, he said.

"I'm the oldest of four children, 10 years older than my brother," Johansen said. "He was the only one who never graduated from high school, the only one arrested, the only one who was not a Christian. Two days before he was stricken with polio, he asked the Lord Jesus into his life.

"In those days, in the 1950s, the iron lung people were put in the county hospital, and we had to stay outside and look at him through a window. Later on, they finally let us go in and see him face-to-face. We had to be gowned and gloved and disinfected and all that. At first, my brother couldn't talk. The nurses taught him if he wanted something, to blink his eyes several times. And 'yes' was one blink, 'no' was two blinks."

About three weeks later, Johansen said, the nurses called because his brother was blinking constantly; they wanted to know if he knew why.

"I had no idea," he said. A few days later, Johansen learned his brother "wanted me to pray with him. I had never prayed with a member of my family at that time. He started blinking again. Within a day or so, the nurses discovered he wanted me to read the Bible to him.

"Then he really challenged me because he wanted me to pray with every person in an iron lung in the hospital. And then he wanted me to read the Bible with every one of them. So that had a major impact in my life."

Later, he said, all of the "iron lung patients" in the Western states were transferred to either Seattle or Santa Monica. His brother was loaded into a moving van with a doctor and two nurses and sent south. Johansen said his family helped find an apartment nearby for his brother's wife and two children.

"I went down every other Friday night and stay until Sunday night," Johansen said. The first Christmas, "we couldn't be with him. The second Christmas, the doctor agreed that they would provide a big room and move the iron lung and we could have a Christmas dinner and celebrate with him, which we did.

"And then he wanted me to come back and watch the Sugar Bowl and the Rose Bowl with him on New Year's Day. So I did."

While watching the Rose bowl, his brother asked his wife to leave so he could talk with Johansen alone.

"He asked me to make sure his two children were raised as Christians and that his wife was taken care of."

After the games, Johansen drove back to Modesto, arriving at 2:30 a.m. At 3:45 a.m., he got a phone call; his brother had died, 15 months after coming down with the illness.

"That's the only time I've ever really questioned God," Johansen said. "I was in agony, and I said, 'God, what have you done?' I later realized that God wanted to capture my life, and he wanted me to know more about him and to serve him."

New priorities

As a result, "I immediately began to make more time for my family, my wife and kids, and the Lord began to speak to me about what my priorities should be. Then I got ahold of his commandments. The first commandment says to love God with all your mind, all your soul, all your heart. And the second commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. Then a little later on, it says to love your enemies. So during my years in city government, which was 1957-67, I was able to put into practice some of the things that God was teaching me."

For example, one night at a Modesto City Council meeting when he was mayor, a man — Johansen wouldn't use names — walked up to the podium and started screaming and swearing at him. Johansen said his calm response amazed other council members and made the man simmer down.

"Also, I knew that Jesus was a leader, and I needed to model him. So that gave me a new vision that when people were in trouble, I needed to help."

When a local businessman was arrested for hit-and-run drunk driving, Johansen visited him in jail and prayed with him. When he read that a community member had lost a son, he would visit the family.

"In one case, a son had committed a murder. I went to the father and spent time with him. My wife and I still call on people who are ill, people who lose a family member, and just encourage them. We offer them help and many times get other people to help.

"God always wants us to be a servant to him by helping others. I get my values from God's word and from the Lord Jesus, and that actually becomes my behavior. So my faith is all-important."

At one point, he said, "God told me to quit trying to make money and just serve me." So he sold his stake in the carpeting business House of Carpets and began correspondence seminary classes. He began the Modesto mayor's prayer breakfast and helped other cities — Los Angeles, Stockton, Turlock and Las Vegas, for starters — to start them.

For the past 50 years, he's been helping promote education. He'd meet with every new Modesto City Schools superintendent and president at Modesto Junior College, offering his services. They often called on him to help raise funds for new facilities.

"I was the founder of Stanislaus Partners in Education, the founder of Parent Institute for Quality Education. That's still going on."

He also helped found the first Better Business Bureau in Modesto, worked with the Chamber of Commerce and served on a slew of business and civic organizations. But his specialty became youth-related activities, including Little League and other sports teams. He volunteered with Campus Crusade for Christ for 18 years.

He turned down a couple of invitations — to get involved with a Bible study program in Congress and to run the European arm of Campus Crusade. But he accepted an invitation from pastor Bill Yeager at First Baptist Church of Modesto to join the staff to oversee the evangelism and discipleship programs there.

New ministry

"Even though I'm up in years, I still get excited about sharing the love of Jesus and see men come to receive Jesus as savior and Lord. It's so exciting to watch their lives gradually change."

So, although he retired from his second career as a pastor in the 1980s, in part to take care of his ailing first wife, Pearl, he's never retired from his passion — serving others with good deeds, encouragement and his faith.

He leads a home-based Bible study for his church, something he's done since 1958. But he's most excited about a project begun three years ago with eight other men, called Pinnacle Forum — "probably the most exciting thing I've ever been involved with in Christendom.

"It's a Bible study movement where you don't mention your church — Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, nothing. It's just people who want to learn more about the Lord Jesus and use him as a model in their leadership. We emphasize inviting leaders — not necessarily Christians — leaders to join our Bible study. They must make it a priority."

The weekly study, held from 6:15 to 7:30 a.m. so it doesn't interfere with work, has grown to five groups of about 12, with plans to expand it to other valley cities in the next year.

"It is so thrilling to see men get excited about the Lord Jesus and begin to use him for their model in their marriage, their fatherhood, their business. That's what makes the blood flow, when you see lives change."

The group, he thinks, is one of the biggest legacies of his life.

God's big surprise

He points to his two marriages as the biggest surprise from God.

His first wife, Pearl, died in 2001 after 60 years of marriage. The two had met at a church hayride when she was 13. They had three children — Linda, now 63, Larry, 60, and Lance, 53.

"When our last child was born in 1955, (Pearl) was not expected to live," Johansen said. "In 18 hours, she had 15 blood transfusions. That turned into hepatitis. Fifteen years later, that turned into cirrhosis of the liver. We had a great life together, but in the last couple of years, she was pretty bedfast and wheelchair-bound.

"The last year, three different times, she said, 'I want to talk to you. You've been such a good husband and father, you need to remarry.' I said I never could. I believed it. But God had other plans. I've had two fantastic wives, both Christian gals."

He married the former Marilyn Ann Gresham in April 2003. He and his first wife had met Marilyn and her first husband in their Bible study group. About two to three years after her husband died, she shared her loneliness with the group, and the Johansens prayed that she would find a godly man to become her husband. Several years later, when Pearl was ill, Marilyn was one of many church people who took dinner to the Johansens.

"That's who God put in my life, and we really enjoy serving the Lord together," Johansen said.

Johansen has had some major health issues in his senior years. When he was 72, he lost the use of his legs because the nerves in his spinal cord got tangled. A neurosurgeon repaired the problem, but said that if Johansen still were alive in about 15 years, the resulting scar tissue and arthritis would be a big problem. It is.

Nine to 13 epidurals every four months had to be stopped because the steroids caused him to become diabetic. Johansen recently had radio waves injected into his back to ease the chronic pain. If it works as expected, his nerves should be deadened in another week or so, which should last for about a year.

Not even the extreme pain, however, can stop Johansen "loving and serving the Lord wholeheartedly. My faith is the most important thing in my life, and my relationship with the Lord Jesus is super."

Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at 578-2012 or