COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho — Come Tuesday mornings, Ray Johnson and Sandy Emerson will be doing what good friends do: Drinking and talking.
Ray does most of that talking. By design.
“Shut up and listen,” Emerson says with a laugh. “If I do that, I learn a lot. I just listen to what Ray says.”
Johnson smiles and nods as the men sit at Coeur d’Alene Coffee Company at the Innovation Den on Lakeside Avenue. They have a corner table to themselves.
These two men, both veterans, have been meeting Tuesdays for more than three years. Emerson drives and Johnson buys, as reported by our news partners, the Coeur d'Alene Press.
They get together even on days with snow on the ground.
"Here we are,” Emerson says.
They don’t talk politics. They talk history. They talk people. They talk places. And sometimes, they visit those places.
It’s a good partnership.
“We enjoy each other’s company,” Johnson says.
At 98, Johnson is sharp. He has taken care of himself and enjoys these outings from his home at Orchard Ridge Senior Living.
He speaks softly, listens carefully, and looks you in the eye.
“I’ve been fortunate,” Johnson says.
The son of Earl and Clara Johnson, he grew up on a farm homesteaded by his parents in Cougar Bay. Johnson's dad was a Teamster and helped build the Clark House on Hayden Lake.
When he was a Coeur d'Alene High senior in 1942, Johnson helped build Farragut Naval Training Station. When he returned from World War II, he helped take it apart.
Johnson joined the Army in 1943. His military career was short but distinguished and he proved his valor in combat. He was a part of the legendary 10th Mountain Division that is credited with heroic deeds in World War II and played a key role in the defeat of Germany.
Johnson was involved in battles and lost good friends in the war. He doesn’t like to talk about the fighting and killing, nor does he care to elaborate on his own actions.
"That wasn’t the important part of my life,” he said. "It was the reunions."
Every three years, survivors of that 10th Mountain Division met. Not to recount the war, but to share hugs, handshakes and be thankful they're alive.
"They were good men," Johnson says.
The U.S. Army said this about the 10th Mountain Division: “By January 1945, the division was executing combat operations in northern Italy. During these operations, the 10th Mountain Division seized German positions on Riva Ridge and Mount Belvedere, breaking through the German mountain defenses into the Po River Valley and reaching the northern end of Lake Garda by the war’s end.”
“During nearly five months of intense ground combat in Italy, the division was opposed by 100,000 German troops, yet effectively destroyed five German divisions, unhinging the defense in Italy and drawing forces away from other theaters. The division sustained nearly 5,000 casualties during World War II, with 999 Soldiers killed in action."
Johnson earned the Bronze Star among other awards.
He returned to North Idaho and was well known for his dedication and skilled carpentry work. Johnson bought, repaired and sold homes, and handled renovations around town.
"He worked on all these different projects. He was the first guy on the job and the last guy on the job,” Sandy Emerson said.
Johnson and wife Vickie had four sons. They celebrated their 74th anniversary before she passed away May 1, 2022.
Emerson grew up in Coeur d'Alene, graduated from Coeur d'Alene High and loved being on the water.
"Emerson worked during summers for lake legend Fred Murphy on barges, pile drivers and tug boats," wrote Ric Clarke, in a Dec. 28, 2016, Press article. "He and some buddies gathered up enough of Murphy’s discarded materials to create a dock-like barge which they powered with a 35 hp outboard to the Diamond Cup race course to watch the action up close. Emerson also was volunteered by his father to sleep overnight at the point of Tubbs Hill to protect the Diamond Cup’s starting clock from potential vandalism."
Emerson attended the University of Idaho before serving in the U.S. Army from 1968 to 1974. He was trained for action in the Vietnam War, but ended up being sent to Germany, in Bavaria, where fortunately there was no war, but plenty of beer and skiing. He was a facilities engineer and later a utility officer. He reached the rank of captain before leaving the military.
Emerson, 77, noted he and Johnson both served in Germany, but under much different circumstances.
“I think I had it a little easier,” he said, laughing.
He returned to North Idaho with wife Jeanne, worked in real estate and as a land appraiser, and still loves being on the water.
The Johnson and Emerson families have long been connected.
Sandy Emerson’s father, Tom Emerson, was a banker and handled some of the transactions when Ray Johnson bought, restored and sold homes.
Johnson and Emerson became friends years ago when both attended First Presbyterian Church with their wives.
They often stayed after services, drank coffee and chatted. But Johnson’s neuropathy worsened, and when he could no longer sit on the church pews, kneel and stand for long periods, he praised God from home.
He was missed.
"I noticed Ray wasn’t coming anymore,” Emerson said.
When he found out why, he offered to pick him up so they could spend time together.
“I enjoyed those conversations,” Emerson said.
He still does.
Emerson picks Johnson up about 8:30 a.m. each Tuesday and they head out to a coffee shop. They smile, laugh and, at times, are serious as the stories flow and they recount the latest.
Some days, Emerson will drive them around town, a history tour of sorts, and take in sites where Johnson once worked or Emerson handled an appraisal.
Emerson has mastered the art of listening.
“I learn something every time we go out," he says.
Their coffee cups empty, the men stand, gather their papers and make their way down the stairs and out the glass door. The sidewalk has icy patches.
“Be careful,” Emerson says to Johnson as he takes his arm.
Emerson says their friendship “couldn’t be more important."
"I call him my senior companion,” he says, laughing.
Johnson, settled in the passenger seat, smiles and nods. It's a good connection.
"An outstanding friendship," he says.
Good friends who will meet again. Same time next Tuesday.
The Coeur d'Alene Press is a KREM 2 news partner. For more from our partners, click here.