By Jordyn Grzelewski
The first time Boardman Police Chaplain Larry Johnson got into Lt. Ed McDonnell’s cruiser, McDonnell warned him that the job could be dangerous.
“Don’t worry about me,” Johnson replied. “I know where I’m going.”
That ride-along eight years ago would be the first of more than 400 rides that Johnson would take with township police officers.
It was during one of those rides, responding to a call about a suicide attempt in May, when Johnson noticed that his fingers were numb.
That numbness turned out to be the first sign that Johnson, 66, had a fast-growing malignant brain tumor called a glioblastoma.
Now, as Johnson battles cancer, the police department is trying to give back to him some of the kindness he showed them over the years.
The Boardman Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 43 and other police department staff are hosting a spaghetti dinner benefit for Johnson from 1 to 5 p.m. Nov. 20 at the Operating Engineers Hall. The proceeds will go to Johnson’s family to help with medical expenses.
“He’s been a shoulder to cry on. An ear to listen,” McDonnell said, seated next to Johnson at his Oakley Avenue home. “You can always count on Larry – that’s why we’re trying to make sure Larry knows he can count on us.”
Johnson’s reliability is part of what endeared him to officers in the first place.
A naturally skeptical bunch, by their own admission, township police officers gradually warmed to Johnson – or, as McDonnell puts it, Johnson simply “wore them down.”
Johnson did not simply show up a few times a year for special events. He came to the department 50 weeks a year, lending whatever support he could during the eight-hour shifts for which he volunteered.
“As policemen, we’re not the most trusting. He’s the one chaplain out of all the ones in the program that really showed the most interest in coming out and serving, shoulder-to-shoulder, side-by-side with us,” said Sgt. Paul Grimes.
Grimes grew so close to Johnson that he enlisted Johnson’s help in 2013 when he and his wife renewed their wedding vows.
Known as a talkative guy, Johnson earned the officers’ trust, a few of them said, simply by listening.
“He took that chaplainship very seriously and made himself available to the guys,” said Capt. Don Lamping. He was “always listening. You can’t put a value on that. You really can’t.”
In addition to acting as a trusted confidante for some of the police force, Johnson also helped them in situations such as notifying someone about the death of a loved one.
“Those types of calls are always difficult, and when Larry was there, they always went a lot smoother,” said McDonnell. “He always made it a lot easier on the family – and on us.”
McDonnell has a particularly close relationship with Johnson. Out on the road together, they’d often turn to a favorite subject: classic movies.
“He’s a fan of old movies. He’s horrible at them, though!” McDonnell joked. “We would go round and round.”
Johnson has undergone radiation and chemotherapy and continues to receive treatment. He had brain surgery in July, the effects of which have made it difficult for him to speak.
For a man who loves to talk, it’s surely frustrating. Tears well in his eyes when the subject of his speech comes up.
He can still express himself, though, nodding his head and adding a fervent “yeah” when McDonnell expresses something for him.
Sitting next to each other, with Johnson’s wife, Bev, and daughter, Lauren, nearby, Johnson continually reaches over to grasp his friend’s hand.
“Pretty soon you’ll be giving us two-hour sermons again,” said McDonnell, his unflagging cheerfulness brightening the room. “I’m thinking he’s coming back. What do you think?”
Struggling to force out the words, Johnson said, “I hope so.”