By: Rich Tarrant
Some who know me may already understand that I do not like telephones. However, out of practical necessity my wife and I do have a landline, and now, of course, we both have cell phones. From my narrow point of view one of the saving features of either device during the last decade or so, however, is something called “caller id”. This means that unless I recognize a caller I seldom answer the phone. It also means that, on occasion, I can also ignore a call when I do recognize the source: I’m just a “Please leave a message” sort a guy.
Anyway, last Saturday morning my cell phone started singing (phones don’t just ring anymore) and I surprised myself by answering it almost immediately. That’s because the caller id told me that the caller was a ghost from my past – a person I’d not seen nor heard of or from since the summer of 1965. “Richard Johnson” was the name boldly printed on my cell.
There may still be a few folks about Vermilion who remember Richard “Dick” Johnson. The short story is that in the yesteryear (c. 1960-66) he owned and operated a local eatery called the Kountry Kitchen. That restaurant was located where Vermilion’s Old Prague restaurant is currently (2017) located.
Now the long story, which fans out in several directions, is: Dick, a “Michigander”, from the St. Joseph part of that state, was born to Hazel and Charles Johnson in 1935. Following a 4-year stint in the U.S. Navy he was attending Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio when he somehow fell to working for a local meat cutter named Ellis Lehner and his son James. It was always my understanding that their business was a little meat market / deli type business. Coincidentally another student attending the university at that time was a fella name Laurence A. Bettcher. Bettcher’s father, Louis (again coincidentally) was a successful entrepreneur / die maker / inventor who had been actively involved in the repair and manufacture of tools for the meat processing industry since WWII.
In 1954 the elder Bettcher had invented an electric powered handheld knife that could be used to easily clean scraps of meat off bones during meat processing. It is a device that substantially improved both the efficiency and profit margins of those involved in the meat processing industry. Although I lack specific details it may be that it was during that time (c.1958) that the paths of Bettcher, Lehner, Lehner and Johnson crossed.
By the year 1960 Bettcher Industries had located a plant in the former Sharpnack Chevrolet building on Liberty Avenue in Vermilion west of the place where Rudy’s Bar and Grill is now located. Also by that time Jim, the younger Lehner, had taken a position with the company. At that time a little restaurant called the Dairy Bar (now the Prague) had closed and was waiting a new tenant. It was then that Lehner purchased the property and called upon his friend, Dick Johnson, who had recently graduated from Ohio Wesleyan to come to Vermilion and open a restaurant in that space.
Johnson was well suited for the business. Not only could he could cook, bake and keep the books (his degree was in mathematics), he was also a very capable butcher. Moreover, because of his relationship with the Bettcher Company he had some of the best meat processing equipment available to him. And, thus, for a majority of the next five years Dick’s business that was eventually named the “Kountry Kitchen” was nursed, cursed and molded into one of the best (food quality wise) restaurants in the area. It was not a fancy place – unless you count the banana plant at the back of the dining room as being fancy – but it was a place where once could enjoy a great dinner at a reasonable price. It was also a place where I spent a majority of my work and social time throughout high school and beyond mentored by Johnson.
I really don’t know precisely what took place after I entered the Army in 1965. But when I returned home in February of 1967 the restaurant was gone. And so, too, was my friend and mentor Richard Johnson. While here he married a local girl and the couple had a son. But other than that, I was at a loss to know what became of him. I always thought he’d pop up again somewhere in the years ahead. After all, he’d been a high profile businessperson – a true talent. As such it was hard to believe that anyone like him could just vanish. But he did. And then…
Last Saturday his named appeared on my cell phone. Uncharacteristically, I answered. And it certainly was Richard Johnson. But it was not as I’d hoped, my mentor. It was his son. Still I held on to the hope that his father was nearby. But the truth was that Dick had bit the proverbial dust back in “eleven or twelve” as his son put it. Young Richard went on to vaguely tell me a few details of his dad’s life in the years following his departure from town – at least as best he knew of them. Little of what I learned was what I expected.
I ended the call prematurely, but politely. I needed to absorb all I’d learned. I might call him back someday. But perhaps it’s best that I leave it alone for now. In many respects he was a very existentialist person. I do recall that he was forever saying things like, “When you leave a place never go back.” It’s not a philosophy that I subscribe to, but it most certainly seems to have been one that he did. And while I doubt that he’d ever have admitted it, or intended, he did leave his footprint in Vermilion’s yesteryear. His name was Richard J. Johnson.
Vermilion resident Rich Tarrant has agreed to share many of the photos and stories he has acquired from the former Vermilion News and other local sources with the readers of the Photojournal. Rich is the youngest son and a grandson of the late proprietors of The Vermilion News (1897-1964). Readers may email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org