Firefighting has been more than a career for a former Indiana fire marshal. Rather, it has been a lifelong passion.

Roger Johnson has devoted his adult life to it, starting when he was 18 and made a fire warden with the East Columbus Independent Fire Department in 1964.

In a firefighting career that has spanned more than 50 years, Johnson has held a variety of positions on the local and state levels that have focused on public safety and the support of firefighters.

Most notably, he served as the state fire marshal from 2005 to 2008 during the administration of former Gov. Mitch Daniels and for seven years was president of the Indiana Firefighters Association, a 3,500-member organization.

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Johnson’s decades of contributions were honored Friday afternoon with a Sagamore of the Wabash award. It is one of the highest state honors bestowed, a personal tribute usually given to those who have rendered distinguished service to the state or to the governor.

State Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, who requested the award that was signed by Columbus native Gov. Mike Pence, presented it to Johnson in a surprise ceremony at Fire Station 2 on Arnold Street.

More than 40 firefighters, family and friends huddled inside one of the station’s truck bays as Johnson was driven in by a family friend with his dog Jake in tow.

As Johnson exited the car, he was welcomed by Smith, State Fire Marshal Jim Greeson — who succeeded Johnson in the role — and other well-wishers. Johnson took a seat in a chair in front of the crowd to receive his award.

The presentation included Smith reading a letter written personally by Pence to Johnson. The governor, who was unable to attend in person, praised Johnson’s contributions to firefighting.

“From your early days as a volunteer firefighter in the 1960s, to your appointment as East Columbus Fire Chief in 1974, and your rise to Indiana’s top firefighting post in 2005, I am profoundly grateful to you and your family for your service and sacrifice,” Pence wrote.

The governor also praised Johnson’s leadership and work ethic in the letter.

“Your work sets a great example for Indiana’s next generation of leaders, men and woman who will continue the progress started by our predecessors and help Indiana shine for generations to come. It is your drive to succeed, your devotion to duty, loyalty to your community, and desire to ensure the safety of all that has built your lifelong firefighting career and legacy. You truly are a hero,” the governor wrote.

Johnson beamed a wide smile as Smith handed him the letter from Pence and the Sagamore award.

Big surprise

The honoree, who will turn 71 on Sept. 26, said he had no idea about the award and expressed appreciation for it and to those who attended Friday.“It’s more than I ever could have imagined. I don’t accept this for myself; I accept this for every firefighter I’ve ever met and every firefighter that’s still out there doing the job morning, noon or night,” Johnson said after the ceremony.

Smith said he received multiple suggestions from constituents that Johnson should receive a Sagamore of the Wabash for his contributions to firefighting. So, Smith took the necessary steps to make it happen, agreeing that Johnson was deserving of the honor.

“He’s been a catalyst for making that profession more professional,” Smith said.

Former city firefighter Doug Hollenbeck was one of those who suggested the idea of the Sagamore to Smith.

“I think it’s the right thing to do and the guy deserves it,” said Hollenbeck, who started at the East Columbus department in 1974 when Johnson was its chief.

Dedication to the fire department and doing your job with all your ability were important examples that Johnson set, Hollenbeck said.

Even though Parkinson’s disease forced Johnson to retire in August 2014 as president of the Indiana Firefighters Association, he still remains vigilant about informing people about the need to have proper smoke detectors, and he continues to be active with firefighting organizations.

Johnson is respected statewide because he is supportive of people and has looked out for the betterment of fire services in Indiana, said Hollenbeck, who drives Johnson to some of his meetings.

“People want to listen to what he has to say,” Hollenbeck said.

Dream come true

Johnson’s desire for a career in firefighting dates back to his youth.At age 2 and living in Wheeling, West Virginia, Johnson’s maternal and paternal grandmothers used to walk him up and down the street, right past the fire stations, his younger sister Eris Johnson said.

“He just started loving fire trucks, and then it was firemen,” his sister said.

Roger Johnson’s attention shifted to the Hope Volunteer Fire Department after the family moved to the town in 1961.

“This big horn would go off for them all to come, and he’d just go out in the street and look down a few blocks and just watch them run to the trucks, and he loved it,” Eris Johnson said.

As a junior at Hauser High School, he told his classmates that his plan was to become the state fire marshal — and he made good on that pledge.

Johnson started his firefighting career as a fire warden with the East Columbus department because he had not reached the required age of 21 to become a firefighter. Eventually Johnson was hired as a firefighter, and he spent 20 years with the East Columbus volunteer department.

He later spent 14 years with the volunteer department in Harrison Township.

Columbus Fire Department Chief Mike Compton, who started his career with the city in 1988, described Johnson as a legend with volunteer fire departments.

“Roger was a volunteer firefighter, and that’s an area that sometimes gets overlooked and underused. In the rural areas, they are your lifeline to fire prevention, fire protection and the EMS service. He put tireless hours into working with the volunteer fire departments here to make them better,” Compton said.

Johnson also worked 20 years in sales for Elkhart Brass, a company that made fire equipment. That job created more bonds in the profession.

One of the ties he created was with Greeson, a member of the Indianapolis Fire Department and later its chief. Greeson said he attended hazardous materials and engine company operation classes that Johnson taught, and they also communicated a lot about the fire service, fire safety and the importance of smoke alarms in people’s homes.

“He was really a mentor and a wonderful leader in the fire service in the state of Indiana,” Greeson said.

The state fire marshal also noted how Johnson played an instrumental role in creating a statewide fire training system — something Johnson had stressed to Daniels.

The Indiana Legislature approved in 2015 a bill that created the Indiana Fire and Public Safety Academy Training System, which became law in July that year. That includes the state standardization of training, the establishment of training sites statewide and the inclusion of training for emergency management and telecommunications.

“It’s very important because what it means is that training provides more safety for the residents of Indiana, it allows firefighters to be better trained and operate more safely in their job, and in some cases that training can go to lower the cost of insurance because the ISO rating can improve,” Greeson said.

While the various roles Johnson has had illustrate what he accomplished and contributed, he’s well known in the firefighting profession for other reasons, too.

Johnson’s dog Maggie accompanied him practically everywhere, including to fire scenes, during most of her 14-year life before she died in 2011. A few weeks after her death, a rescue dog Johnson named Jake took over the role of his companion.

Some of the trips the dogs took with Johnson were to fire scenes where Johnson would take photographs. That served the dual purpose of aiding newspapers with their coverage of the fire and for training purposes with area departments so the photographs could be studied for any mistakes that needed to be corrected.

Johnson, reflecting on his career, said the passion for firefighting he saw in others is what got him hooked.

“Once it gets in your blood, they say, you can’t get rid of it,” Johnson said.

“I found a group of people that were so passionate about doing what they did, about helping people, it was great,” he said.

Roger Johnson

AGE: 70

EDUCATION: Graduated from Hauser High School in 1963

BACKGROUND:

  • At 18, started as fire warden at the East Columbus Independent Fire Department in 1964
  • At 21, became firefighter with East Columbus department and stayed 20 years
  • Volunteer for 14 years with Harrison Township’s fire department
  • Sold fire equipment for 20 years for Elkhart Brass
  • Named state fire marshal by Gov. Mitch Daniels, served in role 2005-2008
  • Served for seven years as president of the Indiana Firefighters Association, before stepping down in 2014
  • Honorary member of Hamblen Township Volunteer Fire Department in Brown County, Edinburgh Fire and Rescue, Columbus city fire department and Lexington, Kentucky’s fire department.
  • Only honorary member of the oldest organized fire company in Indiana, The Fair Play Company Number One Firehouse in Madison, which was organized in 1841.

FAMILY: Sister, Eris Johnson; dog, Jake.

Author photo
Kirk Johannesen is assistant managing editor of The Republic. He can be reached at johannesen@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5639.