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Patrick Springer, Published January 29 2010

Retired Fargo attorney ‘marched to his own beat’

Gene Johnson once remarked that he wanted to be the world’s oldest scuba diver.

The retired Fargo lawyer never realized that goal. He died Sunday at age 75, in a scuba diving accident in the waters off Cozumel, Mexico, his favorite diving spot.

Johnson practiced law for 42 years, with a specialty in transportation law. One of his legal triumphs was a victory in an odometer fraud case that resulted in a new state law and federal procedures.

His colleagues remember Johnson as an advocate who was forceful in his arguments, inside and outside the courtroom.

“Gene had very strong opinions,” attorney Richard Anderson of Fargo said Thursday. “If he felt it was worth saying, he said it.”

Whether Johnson’s argument prevailed in the court of public opinion seemed of little interest, Anderson added.

“You could say he marched to his own beat,” he said.

Johnson also was a frequent writer of letters to the editor, commenting on topics as diverse as traffic safety hazards for bicyclists (he opposed them), dog parks (he favored them), and importation of prescription drugs (another yes).

“He wrote many, many letters to the editor,” said Maureta Studebaker, his longtime companion. “A lot of them were printed, a lot of them were not printed.”

The son of an electrical contractor, Johnson’s views were unabashedly liberal, Studebaker said.

“He’s an authentic person,” she said. “What you see is what you get.”And what you saw was a man who was indifferent to the whims of fashion, and whose wardrobe often was years out of date.

Johnson was avid in his recreational pursuits, which included canoeing, sailing, bicycling and, of course, scuba diving; he became certified as an advanced scuba diver at the age of 60.

“He ended up doing exactly as he wanted,” Anderson said of Johnson’s active retirement. “He was really enjoying this part of his life.”

Johnson was a stalwart supporter of the less fortunate, including the poor and the homeless, Studebaker said.

His funeral service will be at 10 a.m. Saturday in Nativity Catholic Church, Fargo, with visitation one hour before the service in the church.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522