Johnson’s return stirs emotions in hometown crowd

Johnson's return stirs emotions in hometown crowd
For nine months, South Dakotans have awaited the return of their veteran senator. When spectators saw Tim Johnson for the first time at his welcome home celebration in Sioux Falls Tuesday, some were brought to tears.

For many of Johnson's friends and supporters in the area, Tuesday was a moving experience.

Dan Christopherson, the mayor of Vermillion and longtime friend of Johnson, said Tuesday's appearance was the first time he had seen Johnson since December, when the senator had bleeding in the brain.

"It was very emotional. I didn't know what to expect," Christopherson said. "He definitely had some weakness on his right side, which I had heard, but I thought he did an incredible job. He's got his voice darn near back, and his

mannerisms are very similar, but he just uses his left hand.

"It was tough for him emotionally, I think, and it was tough for him physically, but it was hard on the audience, too, because he struggled to make it look easy. But I'm sure he had to work hard to get to that point."

When Johnson entered the stage on a wheelchair, approached the podium and then stood, various emotions flooded the Convention Center. People were cheering, taking pictures and waving signs that read, "Welcome Home Tim," "We Love You" and "It's a Great Day for South Dakota."

"I have to say that this was absolutely a proud moment for all South Dakotans, Democrats and Republicans alike," said Mark Froke, the school superintendent in Johnson's hometown of Vermillion. "I just felt terrific when I saw that he was in such good shape and doing well."

Maren Colon, a senior at The University of South Dakota, was overwhelmed when Johnson appeared onstage.

"I just started bawling," she said.

The Associated Press reported former Sen. George McGovern saying, "It was one of the most moving experiences that I can recall."

Bob Bowker, an elementary school principal in Vermillion, had a similar reaction. Johnson had visited Jolley School a week before his hemorrhage to present the school with a flag that had flown over the Capitol.

"As a grandfather and a father, seeing the family together and seeing that happen and knowing what they went through, that brings tears to your eyes," Bowker said.

Brendan Johnson, the senator's son, said he was "absolutely humbled" by the large turnout and generosity of the crowd, especially from the people of Vermillion and the surrounding area.

"It was completely unexpected that there would be that number of people here. Vermillion and Yankton, and that whole southeastern corner of South Dakota has known my father for so long and has been such an important part of his life for so many years," Brendan said. "I know that it was as incredibly moving for my dad as it was for the entire family."

Jana Beddow Johnson, Brendan's wife, said she knew there would be a large crowd because of the support her family has received since December.

"I was thrilled for Tim because I knew it would really lift his spirits," she said.

Johnson's physical appearance was one of the most noticeable changes since his injury.

"I think before he looked like he was kind of everybody's father, everybody's grandfather. He was bigger and he had a friendly smile and friendly face," said Colon, whose sister works in Washington, DC for the senator. "I think when he came out, everyone was a little shocked at how skinny he was."

Even though Johnson's speech was sometimes slurred, most people had no

trouble understanding him.

"I thought he looked super. I think he made a lot of good, common sense, and he was very understandable," Froke said. "His wit is clearly there."

Bowker said he was pleased with the positive atmosphere that was promoted by leaders from both political parties. He said there was a lot of energy in the room after Johnson finished speaking.

"As I followed it, I thought, 'Wow, I don't know how this is going to turn out and what it's going to be,' " Bowker said. "When I saw the feeling that

everyone had and the excitement that was here, it was just like a USD-South Dakota State football game. We were ready to go."

Brendan said that even though his father will continue to improve his speech

and mobility, he was proud of him for showing the people of South Dakota that, intellectually, the senator is the same man.

"I couldn't have been more proud to be a member of this family as I was tonight," Jana said.

While people were celebrating Johnson's return, many remembered Dec. 13, the day Johnson was taken to the hospital.

"It's a remote-control kind of thing that happens. You're half a country away and you just kind of don't believe that it's possible," said Yankton Mayor Curt Bernard. "You wait for the next update, and you don't know if it is going to be positive or negative or whether it was overstated or

understated. You just kind of hold your breath and work your way through it."

Ryan Cwach, a Yankton native and senior at USD, interned at Johnson's office in DC this summer. He also worried about Johnson's recovery.

"I was really frightened that we were going to lose a good friend to South Dakota," Cwach said. "It was pretty heartbreaking when it happened, but it's good to see that he's back."

Johnson, who is up for re-election next year, has the support of many South Dakotans, several audience members said.

"While we all think that we can live forever, he's had … a near-death experience, and he's come back from the brink," Bernard said. "With that adversity, I think it will make him stronger, make him less the politician and more the leader of the people that we really, really need."

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