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Olson: Community spirit, past and present

Fifty-five years ago, a group of farmers from DeKalb and Lee counties helped plow the fields on the Howard F. Johnson farm a week after Johnson died of a heart attack. Johnson's son, Gerry, still wishes he'd done more to thank them.
Fifty-five years ago, a group of farmers from DeKalb and Lee counties helped plow the fields on the Howard F. Johnson farm a week after Johnson died of a heart attack. Johnson's son, Gerry, still wishes he'd done more to thank them.

On April 7, 1958, Howard F. Johnson died of a sudden heart attack as he was getting ready for bed.

Johnson had farmed ground both in Victor Township in DeKalb County and Earl Township in Lee County, around Leland.

At the time of Johnson’s death, much of that farm ground had yet to be plowed before the spring planting. Johnson’s son, Gerald “Gerry” Johnson was away serving in the Army at Fort Belvoir, Va.

So, a week after the farmer’s death, farmers from as far as 10 miles away came out and worked together to help plow about 150 acres of the farm. There were 45 people with 37 tractors, all there to help a neighbor in a time of trouble.

Gerry Johnson was in his 20s then. Now he’s pushing 80. But he has never forgotten the kindness his neighbors did his family.

“It’s a burden I’ve been carrying all my life, how to repay these people,” Gerry Johnson said. “Boy, I wish I could hug every one of them.”

Most of those who helped that day are no longer living, although he believes some are, including Les Smith, Les Grover, Orrin “Shorty” Hanouw, and Cliff Espevik.

The farmers decided to pitch in to help the family at his father’s funeral, Johnson said. On April 14, 1958, a week after the father died, the group arrived to help.

A pair of brothers, Hes Wesson and Wayne “Pete” Wesson of Leland, organized the effort, Johnson said.

Today, Johnson keeps yellowed newspaper clippings and sheets of paper with handwritten rosters of the farm families who came to help that day, using tractors to pull three-bottom plows.

In the end, their help ended up being crucial to the Johnson family in their time of tragedy.

“They saved our year, saved our farming year,” Johnson said.

Johnson, who had a college degree in business administration when he enlisted in the Army, would go on to work in agriculture, working with the credit department in a feed operation.

After spending much of his career in Mason City, Iowa, he and his wife Kathy have returned to the area.

He’s pretty sure that the community spirit the farmers in DeKalb and Lee counties showed that day in 1958 would show itself again today, too.

“Farmers still know each other, they still talk,” Johnson said. “They know each other like they know their brother.”

We still help: The community spirit those farmers showed that day continues in DeKalb County.

Although it doesn’t always come in the form of tractor and plow, people in our communities still gather to help their neighbors when they are in need – even if they’ve never met them.

One such opportunity is a fundraiser to benefit Teale Noble and her family. Noble, an 18-year-old senior at Sycamore High School, was seriously injured in a Feb. 27 car crash that killed 11-year-old Matthew Ranken. She is still struggling to recover from her injuries.

The event is from 6 to 9 p.m. today at Four Seasons Sports, 1745 DeKalb Ave., Sycamore. Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for children and students. There will be music, a 50/50 raffle, appetizers and an auction. 

News editor Jillian Duchnowski did a great job telling the story of event organizer Sheri Prutton earlier this week. If you can take the time to help, please do.

Tax freedom: If you’re a working person who’s held a full-time job since the start of the year, congratulations. As of Thursday, you’re no longer working to pay off your tax obligations either to Uncle Sam, the state of Illinois, or your local property taxes.

That’s according to the Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan research foundation based in Washington, D.C.

It takes longer for Illinoisans to pay off their tax obligations than almost anywhere else in the country. The only states where it takes longer, according to the Tax Foundation, are New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

Illinois is still a relatively high-income state, with a per capita income of more than $44,000 in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Only Minnesota does better in the Midwest.

But we can no longer labor under the delusion that Illinois is somehow a low-tax state. Our state’s personal income tax rate is now 5 percent, increased from 3 percent in 2011. Despite guarantees of rolling back, it seems possible it will become permanent. 

Our home values have fallen and property tax rates continue to increase. And Gov. Pat Quinn wants to eliminate business tax incentives he calls loopholes to take millions more from corporate interests in the state.

Is it any wonder that Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Florida Gov. Rick Scott think they can persuade Illinois-based businesses to relocate?

Even so: Where are you going to go that doesn’t have problems? Texas has great barbecue and friendly people, Florida has great beaches and Walt Disney World, but neither can lay claim to being an American utopia. 

The per capita income in both states is below Illinois, too.

Our state’s government is in a bad way, there’s no doubt, for all the reasons that we routinely hear about – unfunded pension liability, a backlog of unpaid bills, ineffective leadership, and so on.

But let’s not forget that it’s our government. The people running it come from our communities. They work for us. It is within our power to make changes for the good.

Government moves slowly, and change can take time. That change, however, is coming. It may be uncomfortable, but it is inevitable.

Who pays the least: In case you were wondering, the states with the earliest tax freedom days are Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina and New Mexico.

So if you really hate taxes, looks like it’s Dixie, the bayou, or the desert for you. Do you prefer giant bugs, alligators, or scorpions?

Beatin’ ‘Betes: There are no shortage of running events to benefit good causes this time of year, and one of those is the Beatin’ ‘Betes 5K run being scheduled for May 4 at Hopkins Park in DeKalb.

The race is set for 9 a.m. and will benefit the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Juvenile, or Type 1 diabetes, is not brought on by lifestyle choices – it’s an autoimmune disease that usually emerges in children and young adults. People with Type 1 diabetes must take insulin every day to survive.

It’s an event I’ve worked on personally, along with my Leadership DeKalb classmates Shannon Barnaby of Foster and Buick, Michael Cullen Jr. of NB&T, Mandy Kakac of Northern Illinois Rehab, Carolyn Leist of KishHealth System, Mary Jo McAdams of NB&T, and Matt Wray of Frontier Communications.

You can sign up to run or walk online. The short link is

Working on this race has also given me a newfound appreciation, not only for the individual talents of my fellow event organizers, but also for the hard work that people must put in to make these types of events happen.

Where would the good causes of the world be without these dedicated people? I don’t know.

All you have to do to help is sign up and show up. I hope you can join us.

• Eric Olson is editor of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841 ext. 2257, email, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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