For people who don’t know Fred Johnson and his son, Richard Johnson, the Christmas present the younger of the two gave his father in 2009 might seem somewhat curious.
Richard gave his father an all-expenses paid opportunity to go jump in a river.
A big river.
Specifically, the Cooper River where it empties into Charleston Harbor in Charleston, South Carolina.
No, this wasn’t an attempt by Richard Johnson to get an early inheritance — it was an extension of an activity the father-son duo takes part in several times a week.
“We both enjoy swimming,” Fred Johnson said. “At lunch time we go to the Reeves (Community Center).” There, he said they join a group of other local business people who often do a lot of mid-day swimming.
For Fred, that equates to about a mile or a mile-and-a-half in the water four or five days a week, which gave his son the idea to buy a Christmas gift for his dad that consisted of entry for both of them into the Low Country Splash, as the annual event is known.
There are two versions of the Splash — a 2.4-mile swim and a 5-mile route. While those distances might sound daunting enough, the fact that it’s in open water, sometimes with a wicked tide that makes the event feel more like alligator wrestling than swimming, takes the challenge to a different level.
Still, Richard Johnson felt that taking on the Low Country Splash, the 2.4-mile version, would be a fun event for his dad.
“He spends close to two hours in the pool every day, so I was confident he could do it, and it was something to motivate me to swim more.”
Like his father, Richard Johnson spends a good deal of time in the water, but his athletic endeavors extend to more varied interests, having competed in several triathlons. Those events generally consist of a swim, followed by biking, then running. Most of the triathlons Richard has competed in have been the sprint distance ones, which while varied, usually have a swim of several hundred yards, followed by a bike ride of around 12 miles, and then a 3.1-mile run.
“Most of those include their swim in the pool,” the younger Johnson said. So, the Low Country Splash was his first open-water event as well.
The two have done the swim — which falls around the final weekend of May each year — annually since then, except for one year when Fred was not able to participate, meaning he’s been in the event five times while Richard has done the swim six times.
“It’s just an enjoyable father-son weekend event,” Fred Johnson said of the swim. In the most recent version, he recorded his best ever time — 58:49, while Richard came in at 48:18. For a little perspective, the fastest finisher, James Koval, of Mount Pleasant, S.C., finished in 34:40 minutes while the slowest of the nearly 600 competing swimmers completed the course in one hour and fifty-two minutes.
Needless to say, the Low Country Splash is not a sprint, but an event that’s more about technique and patience, being prepared through slow, steady work.
Not unlike the career path both men have chosen.
Fred Johnson is a name many in the area recognize for his association with local school boards through his practice at the local law firm Faw, Folger, & Johnson, where he’s spent virtually his entire career.
Admitted to the state bar in 1973, he began practicing in Mount Airy in 1974, spending his career in the town where he was born and raised. A Mount Airy High School alum, Johnson graduated from Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, and then earned his law degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
He said he was inspired to pursue a law degree as a child, watching Perry Mason, a television series which ran from 1957-1966 on CBS and remained popular for decades afterward through the airing of reruns and original made-for-television movies.
That series centered around the title character Perry Mason, played by actor Raymond Burr, and his legal defense team which would take on seemingly impossible cases, usually winning the day by showing their client was innocent.
Richard Johnson, on the other hand, said he had no life-long goal of pursuing the legal profession. In fact, as he finished his undergraduate work at Wake Forest, where he received a degree in Spanish, he had not yet made the decision to pursue law.
“I didn’t decide to go to law school until I graduated,” he said. “He talked me into it,” the son said, motioning toward his father. So, Richard Johnson headed off to Florida, where he graduated with a law degree from Stetson University, then came back to Mount Airy where he joined his father’s law practice.
Fred Johnson said once entering the field he quickly discovered the life of a television attorney is glamorized and sometimes not based in reality. While some people can become disappointed, even disillusioned, upon such discoveries, Johnson said he took it in stride.
“I did find the reality of it is much different,” he said. “But, I’ve always enjoyed the practice of law.”
That outlook has served him well, because law practice, just like most fields, has seen tremendous change over the year.
“Technology is the biggest change,” he said. “You used to go into a law office and the walls were lined with shelves,” and those shelves were filled with various law books and codes. Sometimes, “you’d spend hours and hours researching, going through them…now, you just sit at a computer and type in a question.”
He also laments the loss of what he called the “personal touch” the field had years ago.
“There’s not as much direct communication between lawyers as there was,” he said. “So much is done through email now, than by phone calls or sending letters.”
Not that all change is bad.
“It’s quicker now,” he said of researching and bringing cases to resolution. “It’s not easier, the format is different, the process is different, you reach the result in a different manner, but you reach the results quicker.”
Richard, on the other hand, came into the law during the modern information age, and finds communicating through email, or researching online, just fine.
“I’m very pleased” with modern practice, he said. “I can do most of my work sitting at my desk…on a computer.”
While the younger of the two Johnsons, at age 36, has most of his career ahead of him, Fred, who is 67, continues practicing because he enjoys the work. And with more than 40 years of practice behind him, he says there are a few things that stand out in his memory of those bygone years.
“I’ve never had the opportunity to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, but I have had the opportunity to try a case before the North Carolina Supreme Court…and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia.
“Just the opportunity to walk in those courts, the majesty of those settings…that stands out in my mind,” he said, a hint of reverence in his voice. “It’s not so much the individual case, but it’s the court itself, the Supreme Court of North Carolina, or the Fourth Circuit, the court one step below the Supreme Court of the United States.”
The other highlight of his career, he said, is much close to home.
“I’ve had the honor and privilege of representing several school districts,” he said of his work in the legal field. “I like to think we’ve had some influence on helping to improve the educational opportunities the school children in this area.”
Though Johnson admits that at this stage of his career he’s not likely to have the opportunity to ever present a case to the U.S. Supreme Court, he can say something that most others cannot: He has not only competed in the Low Country Splash with his son, but he’s also finished the event in less than an hour.
John Peters can be reached at [email protected], or by calling 336-719-1931.