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Pasco family pays final tribute to father by publishing his children's book

Calvin Johnson's heart was big as a mountain when it came to kids and family.

I met Cal and his wife, Cindy, in the mid '90s when I was a teacher at Seven Springs Elementary. Cindy, who has nurse's training, worked then as a paraprofessional in a preschool classroom with special-needs children. Their daughter Brina was in my third-grade class, and Dara became my student a few years later.

Cal was a Coke service technician who took care of restaurants, schools or any place with a Coke account. I found it pleasantly curious how often his work route brought him to Seven Springs precisely at the time we had recess following lunch.

Cal would hop out of his van, dash to the playground and join in, usually tossing a football with the boys. He'd play as hard as the kids and then, sweaty and hot, give Brina a hug. And with a big smile and wave to all of us, he'd jump in his van and was back on the job.

As I got to know Cal I realized his route did not always bring him to Seven Springs. He planned it that way.

"He really was just a giant kid himself," Brina said with a laugh, recalling how evenings he'd arrive home and hop out of his van to play, rather than heading indoors.

Cal's enthusiasm for life was infectious and included a love for animals. He often purchased leftover bread to toss to the birds behind their house.

He was a reader, not so much of books, but absorbing daily newspapers. He'd often write a well-put-together letter to the editor, many of which ran in the Times. He had ideas and a good way to express them.

"He loved reading and writing," said Cindy, caressing the front of a children's book, Buzzy the Vegetarian Vulture.

Cal wrote it. In his head. During his Coke runs. He grabbed minutes here and there and blocked it out on sheets of papers, directions for sketches and colors written in margins.

He raced in one day after work and urged Cindy to hear the story. She was impressed.

It was about a vulture who, unlike meat-eating vultures, preferred fruits and vegetables. Through Buzzy, Cal showed that it's okay to be different, passing on a message of believing in one's self.

But the book idea got shelved when cancer struck. He fought hard and maintained a strong outlook, but the disease won in November 2011 with some of Cal's dreams complete and some unfinished.

He'd seen Brina and Dara mature into successful young women, Brina now a teacher at Trinity Oaks Elementary and Dara working in the travel industry.

Cal, 57, wanted to be an organ donor, but that didn't play out due to chemo.

Then there was the book, written but never published.

Months after he died, Cindy pushed ahead to get Cal's book in print. She could make that dream come true, and help him forever reach kids.

"We wanted Cal's legacy to live on," said Cindy, recalling how he encouraged others to lead, not just follow.

With the help of Holly Burr, former Pasco County educator, Cindy found Peppertree publishing company in Sarasota. Seven Springs art teacher Kathleen Ciresi-Abremski had the right touch for illustrations Cal had planned. His scribbled directions would be followed, especially the use of purple and yellow, Cal's favorite colors.

The book was published last September.

I recently opened a copy and found Cal Johnson on every page. I saw his dark eyes sparkling with good humor and his beaming smile.

The story, written in simple rhyming sentences, offers a solid message to adults and children. On the closing page, the little vulture with a purple head determines that it's good to just be yourself. That was Cal.

As a teacher I rarely saw any father more dedicated to his wife and children than Cal Johnson. In the end, his family's dedication was returned to him with the publication of his book.