ST. PETERSBURG — After he found the pattern for the old lighthouse keeper’s uniform, Richard Johnson’s wife went to a tailor, and soon, with his grandfather’s spectacles, Johnson was clothed in history.
For several years, he dressed as an 1898 Egmont Key lighthouse keeper, greeting visitors who came annually to get to know the historic spot at the mouth of Tampa Bay that he and other volunteers fought to protect and keep open to the public.
Dressed as the lighthouse keeper, Johnson shared the history of the place and the people who hauled oil up the spiral steps and kept the flames burning for generations. He answered questions. He posed for pictures. He told his wife he understood how Disney characters felt.
Johnson wasn’t a lighthouse keeper — that job got automated — but he was a keeper of lighthouses and the history they hold.
“Lighthouses often are the oldest buildings in a community,” said Ken Smith, a board member and former president of the Florida Lighthouse Association.
And the people who work to preserve them are passionate, he said. In Johnson’s case, passionate enough to spend 30 years working with the Egmont Key Alliance, battling government agencies and, yes, dressing up and telling stories.
Johnson was a “fierce defender of history,” Smith said.
He died unexpectedly Jan. 24, at age 75.
In their 46 years together, Johnson and his wife, Cindi Para, visited all but one of the lighthouses in Florida. They were founding members of the Florida Lighthouse Association. And their adventures together started on the water.
In 1974, Para visited the British Virgin Islands with her cousin’s family. She took a sailing course, and Johnson was one of her instructors. Together, they spent decades sailing and defending Egmont Key.
Johnson was an instructor for more than 30 years and a manager for 10 for the St. Petersburg branch of the Annapolis Sailing School. When that branch closed, he taught sailing at Eckerd College. In early years, he often took his students for day trips and anchored at Egmont Key for lunch. Use of the island was unrestricted at the time, which meant people could do as they pleased — and fewer and fewer birds nested there.
According to the Egmont Key Alliance: U.S. Rep. “Sam Gibbons, working with the State Park Service, the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Fish and Wildlife, crafted a cooperative set of agreements that, in the words of Tim Gibbons, ‘would be so complicated that no one would ever be able to undo it,’ and thereby protect the island. In 1988 Congressman Gibbons helped to organize a joint military and civilian cleanup of the island. The cleanup removed 70 tons of trash including refrigerators, stoves, portable toilets and a truck chassis.”
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In 1991, a group of citizens who cared about the spot’s history, the lighthouse, nature and the key’s future formed the Egmont Key Alliance. Johnson served as president twice, from 1996 to 2005 and 2009 to 2010, helping to defend it from budget cuts, an exotic plant invasion, a proposed sale, erosion and the tug of war between government agencies.
“He was kind of our institutional memory,” said current Egmont Key Alliance president Richard Sanchez.
Johnson’s ways were effective because he argued about issues, not about people, said Ray Wichmann, who taught with Johnson for U.S. Sailing for decades, wrote a book with him and served with him on the national faculty of U.S. Sailing.
Johnson loved sailing, reading and sharing what he’d learned, which he got to do on the water and on Egmont Key.
“Through the years, a series of light keepers about whom we know very little, worked through heat and hurricane, battling mosquitoes and winter gales, to keep the Egmont light working and the station in good order,” he wrote in 2002 for Bay Soundings.
Johnson carried on that work, against different forces, in his time with Egmont Key Alliance. That group’s efforts continue still.
The job now isn’t preserving the light from an oil lamp, but protecting an island that’s full of history and still very much alive.
There will be a celebration of life service for Johnson at 1:30 p.m. March 27, on the campus of Eckerd College at Lewis House. Get directions at the security gate. Johnson loved the tropical lifestyle, so please wear your favorite Florida shirt or tropical attire.
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
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