With Open Arms

With Open Arms
A wide range of emotions greeted Sen. Tim Johnson Friday afternoon during a special welcome home ceremony in Vermillion.

A crowd of over 200 people clapped and cheered as he walked, with the assistance of a cane, across the entire length of the winery's large banquet room, with his wife Barb at his side.

Attempts to remain stoic during such a joyous occasion, however, proved to be difficult. The senator is, after all, Vermillion's native son, according to Mayor Dan Christopherson.

The mayor gave a brief speech to introduce Johnson, who he has known since childhood.

"I'm very proud," the mayor said at the conclusion of his talk, in words choked with emotion, "to introduce my friend, Tim Johnson."

Friday's event marks the first time the senator has visited his hometown of Vermillion since nearly losing his life approximately a year ago.

Johnson was rushed from his Senate office to George Washington University Hospital after becoming disoriented while on a conference call with reporters. He underwent emergency surgery after suffering an intracerebral bleed caused by an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) on Dec. 13, 2006. AVM is a condition that causes arteries and veins in the brain to grow abnormally large, become tangled and sometimes burst.

Johnson left George Washington University Hospital in mid-February last year to work more intensively on his rehabilitation at National Rehabilitation Hospital (NRH) in Washington, DC.

He returned to his residence outside of Washington in late April, and continues his speech, physical and occupational therapy as an outpatient.

Johnson returned to the Senate full-time last August.

"It is wonderful to see so many friends all in one place," the senator told the audience at the winery Friday. "Thank you for your support during this past year with its many challenges. You will never know how much it meant to Barb and me."

Johnson noted that his hometown is the place he learned teamwork while participating in Vermillion Tanager high school athletics.

"We bought our first house on Plum Street – the green house on the corner – and you were the village that helped us raise our three kids," he said. "It took a whole village to raise those three."

The senator said he and Barb recalled many fond memories of Vermillion as they anticipated Friday's visit. The community offered rich experiences, from arts in the park and Fourth of July celebrations, to quiet simple times, "sitting on the front porch, listening to horseshoe games in Prentis Park, or watching the boys play in baseball leagues while we shared stories with other parents."

The senator noted that, despite his recovery, he still faces challenges.

"But with the challenges come opportunities and blessings – opportunities for personal growth, for a second chance at life, to see things from a new perspective, and a blessing of friends, family and a closer relationship with God," he said.

Johnson told well wishers Friday that the AVM that caused his health problems is gone.

"Although it has left weaknesses on my right side, my mind and my spirit are strong," he said. "My work ethic and values that I learned working side by side with you have taught me not to walk away from a job until it's done."

Since returning to the Senate last August, Johnson

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hasn't missed a single vote.

"I've worked hard for a fair and just farm bill, and an energy bill that supports alternative sources of fuel that are vital to our country's future," he said. "There is much more that needs to be done. I'm determined to use my seniority and second chance to better my state and my country."

USD President James Abbott noted that when news spread in December 2006 that that Johnson had been hospitalized, he received correspondence from across the nation from people hoping for a full recovery.

"Of course, as a representative of the university, I'm reminded virtually every single day of Tim's importance to our community," Abbott said. "Just last week, we were notified that the final $2 million came to the University of South Dakota to enable us to finish the medical school project – a very important project for all of our citizens."

Johnson has pushed his colleagues on Capitol Hill every year to provide the necessary funding, Abbott said.

"Just finally this year, he and his staff were able to make that happen, and I know that you will all be most appreciative of that when you tour the new medical school and understand what that kind of political activity on the hill in Congress means to The University of South Dakota.

"On behalf of the staff, students and faculty at The University of South Dakota, welcome home, Tim, this is a great family reunion," Abbott said.

"This indeed is a great day for Vermillion, as home is a very special place for all of us," Christopherson said. "Tim had a great childhood here in Vermillion. I can attest to that; I grew up with Tim here in Vermillion. He learned to be trustworthy, he learned great integrity, and he learned a fine work ethic and we see that happening all the time every day in his job in Washington."

The senator, Christopherson said, learned "Vermillion values" from his hometown. Those values, he said, include a tenacity that enables him to face his medical challenges while carrying out his Senate duties.

Johnson's brief speech was followed by a period that allowed the senator and audience members to meet and talk personally.

It was a time filled with laughter, hugs and more than a few tears from both acquaintances and the senator.

"If home is where the heart is, we are now home," Johnson said.

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