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updated: 11/9/2012 5:53 PM

Warrenville school remembers 'Papa Chief'

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  • Ian Ruiz shows off a card his kindergarten class made for vets during a Veterans Day program Friday at Johnson Elementary School in Warrenville.

       Ian Ruiz shows off a card his kindergarten class made for vets during a Veterans Day program Friday at Johnson Elementary School in Warrenville.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Jim Myrick, left, and Roger Gaden, members of the DuPage County Marines, Detachment 399, greet students as they head in for a Veterans Day program at Johnson Elementary School in Warrenville.

       Jim Myrick, left, and Roger Gaden, members of the DuPage County Marines, Detachment 399, greet students as they head in for a Veterans Day program at Johnson Elementary School in Warrenville.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • World War II veteran George Kleinwachter of Warrenville introduces himself during a Veterans Day program at Johnson Elementary School in Warrenville.

       World War II veteran George Kleinwachter of Warrenville introduces himself during a Veterans Day program at Johnson Elementary School in Warrenville.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Principal Derick Edwards reads from a plaque honoring veteran Clifford Johnson, who passed away this fall. Johnson's widow Fay Johnson and her daughter-in-law Monica Johnson attended the Veterans Day program at Johnson Elementary School in Warrenville.

       Principal Derick Edwards reads from a plaque honoring veteran Clifford Johnson, who passed away this fall. Johnson's widow Fay Johnson and her daughter-in-law Monica Johnson attended the Veterans Day program at Johnson Elementary School in Warrenville.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

 
 

A former Air Force corporal who served in Guam and would later become "Papa Chief" of the Warrenville Fire Protection District was saluted at his namesake school Friday during a Veterans Day assembly.

Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 officials used the assembly to formally pay tribute to Clifford Johnson, 84, who died Oct. 1, presenting his family with a plaque, clock and bench that will be displayed in his memory at Johnson Elementary School.

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His family remembered his commitment to the Warrenville school after it opened in 1990. The Warrenville man often read to students, talked history and delivered homemade cookies.

"The school meant a lot to him," his daughter, Debra Swinden of Warrenville, said. "When they named the school after him, he said, 'I will do everything I can to deserve it.'"

He also observed every Veterans Day at the annual school assembly.

"Today's a little extra special," Johnson's wife Fay said.

He was a "redheaded kid" who spent most of his three-year service, from 1946 to 1949, in Guam, she said.

"My husband, nobody ever shot at him, so he felt like he really wasn't a veteran," Fay said.

His daughter echoed that humility describing his leadership as fire chief. Dubbed "Papa Chief," a nickname that appeared on his car's license plate, Johnson hired the first female, African-American and Hispanic firefighters during his tenure, Swinden said.

"He was instrumental, but he never knew that," Swinden said. "He never thought of himself any more than anybody else."

Students also presented cards to the family and more than a dozen veterans lining a stage. There were veterans from Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Most wore blue jeans. A World War II veteran wore his full uniform.

Arthur Fehrman, a World War II Army corporal, returned to the assembly after suffering a stroke last year. While he was in the hospital and unable to attend the event, students still sent Fehrman a box full of cards. On Friday, he hoped to instill a sense of patriotism.

"Keep your heaps up and watch the flag," said Fehrman, 88, whose granddaughter, Amy, teaches at the school.

When asked about Veterans Day, Fehrman acknowledged his son's 15-month tour in Vietnam instead of his own service.

Fehrman refurbished his son's 1957 Chevy convertible as a welcome-home present and a pretty cool ride to pick him up at the airport.

"We had the whole house decorated and all these people were waiting for him," Fehrman remembered.

For Swinden, the assembly's tribute to her dad was "an honor."

"He's the best man that I ever knew," she said.

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