Meet Volunteer Attorney, Brigadier General Art Johnson

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Art Johnson

Art Johnson may not be a paid employee, but his history with Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic spans back much further than most of the current staff. His work began humbly enough in the early 2000s, with him volunteering at an intake site, sitting down with new clients to hear about their cases and to take notes. Now, more than a decade later, Art is an integral member of the Clinic family. He attends regular staff meetings and sets appointments with clients on a weekly basis, almost single-handedly addressing their Wills and Estate Planning needs. A deeply devout Catholic, giving freely of his time, money, and expertise is simply a way of life. “How do you show you love God?” he asks me. “You show it by taking care of the poor.”

While attending Ball State University in the early 1960s, Art joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) as a freshman. He says, “It gave me the order and structure that my personality appreciates. And I developed a vision of having an Air Force career.” Over the years, Art eventually reached the rank of Brigadier General, with a career in Arms Control during the Cold War. He spent time working in the Pentagon and with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, receiving various awards and decorations along the way. But during all that time, Art harbored a desire to learn more about Law. He says, “I liked the way [attorneys] thought and I was intrigued by the military justice system.”

One day at the Pentagon, as he exercised on an elliptical machine at the Officers’ Athletic Center, he felt he heard God saying, “Why don’t you just go be a lawyer?” Soon after, he began his studies at Indiana University McKinney School of Law. Most of his classmates were much younger than he was, eager to “get out into the real world.” But for three years, Art immersed himself, delighting in learning this new discipline.

As a volunteer attorney, Art strives to know each one of his clients. He says, “Everybody comes here with a life story that is a lot more complex than just simply sitting down and doing an intake and gathering information to do a will.” His work at the Clinic gives him the chance to live out his faith, to help others, and to have a home base. “[The Clinic] is a little sanctuary,” he says.

Despite his positivity, Art is no stranger to hardship. Last year, he successfully underwent treatment for prostate cancer. Recently, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. But he maintains an attitude of gratefulness. He says, “If I look at God’s grace, I have it in orders of magnitude.” He counts off his blessings: his career, getting to go to Law School, and, most of all, his wife, Penny. “No matter what happens, I’m blessed,” he says. “The Parkinson’s thing? That’s God’s will. He knew this was coming before I was born. And it’s just part of the deal.”

Art Johnson is an easy person to admire; he’s humble (I had to convince him to let me write this post about him), selfless, and brimming with faith. But, just like anyone else, he confesses some days are harder than others. I ask him how he carries through the difficult moments. He scarcely needs even a second to answer. “When I start waking up in the morning,” he says, “I start praying.”

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