Dennis Leonard Johnson, first mayor of Highland, died on Monday, July 6, after a brief bout with cancer. He spent his last two weeks at home with his family and beloved Labrador retriever.
Dennis was born in Bend, Ore., on Nov. 5, 1939. He was the youngest son of Mildred and Ellis Johnson, both hardworking Swedish immigrants. He lived in Prineville, Ore., with his parents and older brother Milton until a business opportunity moved the family to San Bernardino in 1947. This business opportunity was the creation of Home Lumber Company. Home Lumber Company was a very successful building supply company in San Bernardino for over 60 years.
Dennis attended Warm Springs Elementary, Highland Junior High and Pacific High School. Before he passed, Dennis was asked what he enjoyed most about growing up in the San Bernardino Valley, his answer was “freedom.” His formative years were spent building dragsters in the family garage, working at the “yard,” cruising E Street, hanging out at the dragstrip in Colton, and meeting friends at the A & W on 40th and Sierra Way after high school football games.
He was a proud member of Pacific High School’s class of 1958 and kept his friendships from that time throughout his life. His sport in high school was wrestling. He was very successful and competed in CIF finals. His weight class was 165-175 lbs., but he usually had matches with heavier guys because he didn’t have much competition in his weight class. He had great respect for Coach Lyles and Coach Finn.
After high school he attended San Bernardino Valley College where he continued his wrestling career with Coach Smith. In his 1959 season the SBVC team won the state championship and Dennis placed third in his weight class. After a short stint at the University of Oregon, Dennis finished his education at Cal State Long Beach where he earned a BA in economics in 1965.
He was a partner in Home Lumber Company with his father and brother, but also bought and sold properties, managed a ranch in Nevada and took care of his home and property in Highland. He liked being known as a farmer. He loved working in his garden, donating his harvests to the Highland Senior Center, and growing oak trees for local conservation projects.
He was a respected and conscientious community leader. He was instrumental in the formation of the city of Highland, preventing it from being annexed to the city of San Bernardino. He became the first mayor of Highland in 1987 and served many years on its city council. He was a member of the East Valley Water District’s Board of Directors from 1975-87 serving as vice president (1977-79) and president (1979-82). He was an early president of the San Bernardino International Airport Authority and an integral part of the Highland Trails Committee. In January 2019 he was honored with the title of Highland’s Citizen of the Year.
Dennis met his future wife, Nancy, when he was a junior and Nancy was a senior at Pacific High. They were spending spring break on the Balboa Peninsula. Nancy was being chaperoned during spring break along with her girlfriends, Dennis and his friends were not. He saw her walking near the Fun Zone with her girlfriends and the rest is history. They were married April 14, 1962, and were together 58 years. Dennis and Nancy enjoyed traveling, watching their kids’ and grandkids’ activities and visiting with friends.
Dennis leaves behind his brother Milton, wife Nancy, daughter Tracy Topoleski, son Travis Johnson, grandson Jack Topoleski, and granddaughters Austin and Morgan Johnson, and much-loved nieces, nephews, extended family and cherished friends. His positive outlook on life, big ideas, sense of humor and encouraging words will be deeply missed by those who loved him.
A celebration of life will be held at a date when friends and family can come together to celebrate his life and legacy. In lieu of flowers, a donation to the Highland Trails Committee in memory of Dennis Johnson would be appreciated. Donations can be sent to: City of Highland Trails Committee, attn. Kim Stater, 27215 Base Line, Highland, CA 92346.
Dennis was also a blood donor who gave 60 donations during his lifetime, a little more than 7 gallons. Giving a lifesaving blood donation in his memory would be a wonderful gesture.