The judge’s ultimatum came 67 years ago: Enlist in the military or face juvenile detention for repeatedly skipping classes at San Diego High School.
Norm Johnson gladly joined the U.S. Air Force in April 1950. Even after he was deployed to Asia to fight in the Korean War, Johnson was sure he wouldn’t miss San Diego — save for the sports and judo lessons, which the slight 17-year-old took at his father’s urging.
The ensuing decades were a blur of unbelievable jobs and encounters with dignitaries and celebrities — bodyguard to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, backup dancer to Elvis Presley in “Jailhouse Rock” and racing cars with James Dean, among them — that Johnson chalks up to smarts, luck and timing.
After amassing personal experiences that could rival Tom Hanks' character Forrest Gump in the 1994 film, Johnson will receive what he describes as an important accolade Wednesday when he gets an honorary diploma from the San Diego County Office of Education and Operation Recognition Veterans Diploma Project.
Why after all those years, all those experiences, does that sheepskin matter to Johnson?
“I was surprised that it actually does matter to me this much,” said Johnson, 83. “It will legitimize my life.”
While stationed in Tokyo, Johnson said, he was assigned as one of 16 elite bodyguards to MacArthur after a colonel learned of his black belts.
“He would speak to us, but nothing personal,” Johnson said of the five-star general who ultimately was fired by President Truman. “We were like Secret Service, hidden in a crowd because he wanted to be seen. He felt Japanese people needed to know Gen. MacArthur was not afraid.”
Both Presley and Dean were “cool,” Johnson said. “Elvis liked to talk about judo. We talked a lot.”
Johnson went on to study journalism at San Diego Junior College, now San Diego City College, before getting a job covering sports for the Alhambra Post-Advocate in Los Angeles County. He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his accidental coverage of the 1965 Watts riot after giving a friend from the Los Angeles Police Department a ride from Dodger Stadium “to a developing disturbance.”
“We got there and a crowd was surrounding this telephone booth, where a reporter from UPI was trying to call in a story,” Johnson said. “I was getting glass removed from my face when I called in my story from a gurney.” He remembers the opening line of the piece: “I drove through hell last night.”
Johnson has taken photos with President Carter, British Prime Minister Margret Thatcher and Cassius Clay before he changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
Now, nearly 70 years after he bolted from San Diego High, he is set to receive a diploma from the San Diego County school board during a makeshift commencement ceremony.
“This program was designed to honor people whose education was disrupted by war. This really shows you how important that high school diploma is to people,” said Nicole Shina, who oversees Operation Recognition for the county Office of Education. “Norm is a perfect example. He led this colorful life — not everyone can say they met James Dean and Elvis Presley — but this still means so much to him.”
Magee writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.