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LeRoy Johnson Jr.

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LeRoy Johnson, Jr. Born September 10, 1935 in Lubbock, Texas, LeRoy died of natural cause on February 4th, 2011 in Austin, Texas. He was a Renaissance man of letters, an anthropologist by training, a detective-historian by bent and a witty and willful contrarian. Lee grew up in Lubbock, son of a barber. He fondly remembered boyhood days on his maternal grandparents' High Plains farm where he helped raise pigs, pullets and Valencia goobers and relished homemade hot hog sausage, blackeyed peas and cornbread. Six decades later he recalled a certain cow with "long sharp horns" charging as he walked across the barn paddock. He would run for dear life toward one spot in the barbed-wire fence and slid under the lowest wire followed by a "loud twang as the evil Jersey hit her horned head against the fence. I never got gored, and viewed the running exercise as a fascinating game - but scary." Learning was LeRoy's life-long calling. After attending Texas Technical College in Lubbock, he moved to Austin and earned his B.A. in anthropology at the University of Texas in 1958. Between semesters he worked as a field archeologist on various digs across Texas for UT's Texas Archeological Salvage Project. He spent 1959 in Mexico City attending the Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historica. Returning to the University of Texas, he continued doing salvage archeology and earned a M.A. in 1961. From 1962-1964 he studied at UCLA where he was awarded a Ph.D. in anthropology. Lee taught at Ohio State University for a year before moving to the University of Oregon, where he taught from 1965-1971 and became Associate Professor of Anthropology and Curator of Ethnology at the Museum of Natural History. In 1971 Lee left academia of his own accord out of distain with bureaucracy and became a merchant, weaver, and research consultant in Eugene, Oregon. In those years he was proprietor of the Yankee Clipper, an imported clothing store, and lived on a small farm where he raised Araucana and other specialty chicken breeds. He took part in the anti-war movement and was a progressively minded card-carrying member of the ACLU. Lee regarded his Oregonian years as his life's apex of freedom, romance and enlightenment, an eventful and welcome respite from Texas and the South. Yet in 1982 he moved back to Austin for good. For the next 15 years he worked as an editor and research archeologist at the Texas Historical Commission. He analyzed and reported on a series of major archeological excavations of prehistoric campsites in central Texas. LeRoy's literate monographs on these places and the tell-tale activities of the Indians who once lived there have few equals on the archaeologist's bookshelf. Lee retired in 1997, disposed of his professional library and forbade visitors from mentioning archeology upon penalty of a swift caning. He now had time to delve into many other arcane subjects. He read voraciously - literary fiction, history, mystery novels and watched educational programs and foreign films. While he enjoyed going out for lunch and having friends over for tea, unbidden personal questions elicited familiar response: "Hard to say, here today, gone tomorrow." He insisted on proper table etiquette and preferred to talk about his latest research fixation, hear about his friends' adventures and shared interests, ruminate about bygone days, or forcefully curse societal decline. An afternoon session with Uncle Lee, as he liked to be called, was a memorable occasion. Rheumatoid arthritis and a fondness for hog lard kept him on an increasingly short leash. He traveled via the written word, movies and the eyes of friends. When Lee chanced upon an obscure and poorly understood historic topic that struck his fancy, he took it on. He would read everything written on it he could lay hand on, correspond with specialists, and fill page after page with detailed notes and musings in flowing black fountain-pen ink. He used an ancient desktop computer only for the final stage of scholarly writing. A proud Luddite, he refused connection to the Internet but would allow others to surf the Web for him. He enjoyed enlisting others in his investigations. Upon completing an inquiry he wrote a compelling account of his findings illustrated by neatly pasted clipped images. Then it was on to the next worthy historical quest. Military history intrigued him; two of his many studies: "A Short History of U.S. Army Medium Bombers (Piston Engine) 1918-1938" and "The Missions and P-38 Lightnings of Richard I. Bong." Lee was fluent in Spanish and read Latin, German, French and other Romance languages. A fascination in tracing the evolution of Vulgar Latin and its descendants resulted in "A Little Detective Work on a Small Sample of the Sicilian Languages." Lee was fascinated with late 19th century and early 20th century trains, planes, ships and guns. His dining room was jammed with an elaborate model train setup which he added to and tinkered with for decades. A passion for the early U.S. Steel Navy led him to commission several high-quality 1:200 scale metal ship models. Not content with representations, he began to research, restore, and collect 1890s-1940s Mosin-Nagant and Mauser bolt-action military rifles. His living room became a gunsmith's shop housing dozens of working rifles, each tagged with provenance and specifications. Periodically he went to a shooting range and tracked progress in properly sighting in each gun on carefully annotated targets. As his armory grew, so did his understanding of the evolution of the weaponry and of the German, Russian and Finnish armies for whom they were made. LeRoy Johnson, Jr. is survived by his brother Norvell Johnson, nephew Brent Johnson, niece Leslie Lants, numerous cousins and friends from many walks of life. None will ever know another like him.
Published in Austin American-Statesman on Feb. 20, 2011
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