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In 2018, Congressman Sam Johnson could see the end of his 13th term of office and he made a decision. Johnson had lived in Plano ever since he and his wife of 65 years, Shirley, settled there in 1979, shortly after he retired from the Air Force. They had built a life, a home-building business, and a political career. Five years after he retired, he won an election and become the representative for the Third District of Texas.
Thirteen times, he successfully ran as a Conservative, largely unopposed. But he had suffered great losses recently. One of his sons died in 2013 and Shirley, who he often called his personal hero, died in 2015.
As Johnson wrote in a 2018 letter, he felt sure that God was telling him his time in Congress was over. “I have always considered the citizens I serve as my extended family with whom I have a special bond,” he wrote. “And what a journey we have shared together! Words can never express my gratitude to those who fervently prayed for me and stood by my family during the almost seven years I spent as a Prisoner of War in a place so dark and desolate, it could only be referred to as Hell on Earth. The celebratory homecoming parade thrown in my hometown of Plano upon my return from Hanoi will always rank among one of my most treasured memories, encapsulating all that I love about America–faith, family, and freedom.”
On May 27, Johnson went to be with his wife and son. He died of natural causes unrelated to COVID-19 at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Plano. He was 89. He leaves behind two daughters and 10 grandchildren.
A Republican and former prisoner of war, Johnson was the oldest member of Congress when he retired in 2019.
He was born in 1930 in San Antonio. His family eventually settled in Dallas. He graduated from Southern Methodist University in 1951 and began his military career. A talented fighter pilot, Johnson flew 62 missions during the Korean War. He was a member of the elite Thunderbirds team. However, he was shot down over North Vietnam in 1966 and spent seven years as a prisoner of war.
In a 2016 interview with Local Profile, he recalled his years as a prisoner of war: “I had spent 74 days in leg stocks—unable to move from my cement bed. It had been a long time since I had seen the sky and the sun. I felt finished. I remember falling asleep and thinking it would be okay if I never woke up again.”
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He often credited those years with shaping his perspective and later his service as a Congressman.
“There was a quote on the wall etched by a fellow captive that I’ve shared with folks over the years,” Johnson told Local Profile in 2016. “The quote read, ‘Freedom has a taste to those who fight and almost die that the protected will never know.’ I think this statement perfectly captures what it means to be a veteran.”
His military decorations included two Silver Stars, two awards of the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star Medal and two Purple Hearts.
Johnson was elected to the state legislature in 1984, and then won his congressional seat through a special election in 1991. His 28-year political career was marked by his Conservative ideals. Locally, he was instrumental in repealing the Wright Amendment, which opened up Dallas Love Field to be able to offer direct flights out-of-state. He also helped found the Conservative Action Team, later renamed the Republican Study Committee.
He was especially known as a champion of service members and veterans. He was instrumental in establishing a VA outpatient clinic in Plano. Late in his career, he got a Korean War Veterans Memorial Wall of Remembrance Act signed into law. He claimed the memorial in its current state did not fully convey “magnitude of the sacrifice made by American service members during this often forgotten war.”
At the hospital, Johnson was given a Final Salute. Employees and family members observed a moment of silence in his honor. A U.S. flag was handed to the congressman’s daughters.
“It’s an honor for Texas Health Plano to salute Rep. Johnson’s long life of service, both in the military and as an elected representative, and to share this special commemoration with the family he loved. We are privileged to have cared for this American hero in his final tour of duty as a patient in our hospital,” said Stephen Hadzima, M.D., chief medical officer of Texas Health Plano in a statement.
On Wednesday, Gov. Greg Abbott offered tribute to Johnson: “Sam Johnson was a fearless patriot and an American hero, and we are incredibly proud and fortunate to have called him a fellow Texan. Today, we mourn the loss of a great Texan, but we also remember his tremendous life and the legacy he leaves behind.”