Renowned Palm Beach County Lawyer, Gamma Rho/Florida State alumnus,
enters Chapter Eternal
The following obituary was published on June 28, 2019, via The Palm Beach Post (www.palmbeachpost.com). It was reprinted with permission from author of the obituary, Jane Musgrave, which remembers Bill Johnson (Gamma Rho/Florida State 1980).
Third-generation Palm Beach County lawyer dies of cancer at 60
WEST PALM BEACH — William E. Johnson, a third-generation Palm Beach County lawyer, reached the pinnacle of his profession winning million-dollar verdicts for people maimed by medical mistakes, injured in car crashes or hurt in freak accidents.
But, when friends, family and colleagues talk about Johnson, who died Wednesday, they remember his laugh.
“Billy had one of the best laughs. It would break up an entire room,” recalled 4th District Court of Appeal Judge Cory Ciklin. “People began laughing at the laugh. It was just infectious.”
Johnson, the husband of Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Laura Johnson, succumbed to a rare form of cancer that was discovered four months ago, his wife said. He was 60.
The laugh, that some described as a giggle, was emblematic of the gregarious lawyer’s approach to life, those who knew him say.
“He walked into a room and you knew there was a good time to come,” said Circuit Judge Krista Marx, who first met Johnson and his future wife when they were all undergraduates and later law students at Florida State University. “He had such extraordinary joy. There are certain people who are just a light. He was one of them.”
“Billy had a high happiness set point,” said his wife, Laura. “He jumped out of bed giggling.”
It seemed predestined that Johnson would practice law. His grandfather A.R. Johnson, one of the early pioneers of West Palm Beach, practiced law with his two sons. His father, Thomas H. “Red” Johnson, was a longtime Palm Beach County circuit judge who also served in the Florida Senate and as state attorney. Two of Johnson’s four brothers are lawyers.
Four years ago, Johnson watched with pride as his wife administered an oath to their son, Robert, officially welcoming him to the Florida Bar and to the de facto family business.
“He loved practicing law,” Laura Johnson said of her husband. “He enjoyed his clients. He enjoyed the juries. He liked helping people. He was just an old-school lawyer — never a contract, always a handshake.”
In a 2008 interview with the Palm Beach Post, Johnson said he became enamored with the law at a young age.
“As a kid, I’ve got a vivid recollection of my mother loading all the (five) brothers up in the station wagon to take us downtown to watch my father, a state attorney, prosecuting a murder trial,” he said, shortly after being inducted into the prestigious Million Dollar Advocates Forum. “I remember sitting there being mesmerized and watching my dad cross-examining a witness. I thought, wow, this is amazing. ”
He gave his own son a similar, but more immersive, introduction into the legal world.
Abruptly left without an assistant as he was preparing for a personal injury trial in Tampa, he pressed his then 14-year-old son into service. Robert “Burr” Johnson remembers sitting alongside his father at the counsel table in the courtroom, taking notes to help his father pick a jury.
“We were there for a week-long trial. We won. It was great spending time with him,” Robert Johnson recalled.
His father, a solo practitioner for much of his career, later joked that he didn’t know why he should pay someone when his son could do the job. While he was in high school, Robert said he played a similar role in a half-dozen other trials for his father.
The experiences, he said, helped cement his decision to become a lawyer.
Johnson was lifelong friends with Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath. The two played together as youngsters when their families lived across the street from each other on Singer Island.
Later, the two families had an unusual bond. Colbath’s father, Walter, became the county’s first elected public defender at the same time Johnson’s father was the county’s state attorney. The two faced off against each other in dozens of murder trials.
Judge Colbath remembered Johnson, who was his best man at his wedding and vice versa, as a skilled story-teller. “That’s why he was such a good lawyer,” Colbath said. “He could captivate a jury.”
Like others, Colbath also recalled his friend’s quick wit and his contagious laugh. Even in his last moments, Johnson remained true to form.
“To the very end, he had us all giggling,” Marx said.
In addition to his wife and son, Johnson is survived by daughter Caroline Johnson and daughter Julianne Black and her husband, Billy, and their son, William; his mother, Audrey, and four brothers, Thomas Jr., Robert, Joseph and John.
Funeral arrangements are pending.