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Johnson’s heart of gold: Longtime Worthington jeweler dies after extended battle with cancer

Jeff Johnson and his wife, Sharon, began operating Johnson Jewelry in downtown Worthington in the early 1990s. Jeff passed away Aug. 31 after an extended battle with cancer. (Alyssa Sobotka / The Globe)

WORTHINGTON — The loss of a longtime businessman, philanthropist, musician, sports enthusiast and overall community cheerleader is being mourned in Worthington and the surrounding area.  

Jeff Johnson, 54, died Aug. 31 at Sunset Hospice Cottage in Worthington.

Considered a selfless man who never sought public attention, Johnson’s friends and colleagues say he exemplified his character through his more than 13-year battle with cancer. He continued to live a positive, upbeat life, never so much as murmuring one complaint throughout his ongoing treatment.

Those who knew Johnson testify that he was personable, ever-present, lived by example and was “so kind-hearted that he would give his shirt off his back to anyone that needed it,” current Johnson Jewelry Manager Angie Schieck said.

Jeff and his wife, Sharon — longtime Worthington residents — are known for their dedication to Worthington’s business community with their downtown Johnson Jewelry store. The family-owned jewelry business has had a Worthington presence for 54 years, with Jeff and Sharon entering partnership with Jeff’s parents, Jim and Joanne Johnson, in the early 1990s.

A 22-year employee of Johnson Jewelry, Sherry Benton said she was privileged to work with Johnson Jewelry's father/son leadership.

“(Jeff’s) dedication to his business was outlined with integrity and honesty,” Benton said. “He warmly welcomed the customers he served during the years as proprietor of Johnson Jewelry.”

A businessman who also served on the Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, Johnson supported other local businesses as best he could, Schieck said. She noted that working for Johnson during her six-year tenure has been her most positive employment experience.

Johnson was also invested in spiritual, civic and social organizations, including Indian Lake Baptist Church, Worthington Area YMCA, United Way of Nobles County, Worthington Optimists, Worthington Noon Kiwanis, Okabena Bay Area Striders and the Retail Jewelers Organizations, his obituary cites.

A sports fanatic, Johnson meshed his love for an active lifestyle with his dedication to serve others at the Worthington Area YMCA. For more than 20 years, he was a member of a group of men that met over the noon hour, Monday through Friday, at the Y to play basketball or run.

Johnson left a particular impression on fellow member Bob Jirele, who recalls a younger version of himself — new to town — walking on to the YMCA basketball court in 1988 in an attempt to meet community members.

“Jeff immediately came over and introduced himself, shook my hand and welcomed me to the group,” Jirele said. “He was the only guy that did that.”

Jirele and Johnson’s friendship continued throughout countless games of basketball. The two also ran marathons together, including a 2004 Chicago, Ill. marathon, shortly before Johnson was diagnosed with cancer.

Not only was Johnson a loyal YMCA member, he also served on the board of directors in various capacities. As treasurer turned vice president and eventually president, he was a leader who took the positions of significant responsibility very seriously, said YMCA Executive Director and CEO Andy Johnson.

“He was not only a man of high integrity and honesty, but would sit down and talk about issues if need be,” Andy Johnson added.

Music was also a huge part of Johnson’s life. He loved to play saxophone in the “Amazing” Worthington City Band and was a supporter of Worthington Area Music Booster Organization, said Anne Foley, a family friend and Sharon’s Independent School District 518 colleague.  

“Music has been a family activity they’ve all enjoyed,” Foley said.

Johnson and his wife were two of three honorary chair members of the 21st annual Relay for Life of Nobles County in 2017. That was at least seven years beyond what doctors initially expected him to live. The focus of Jeff’s message was not about his diagnosis, but the overwhelming support and strength he said the community had given him.

“Thank you just doesn’t seem enough,” Johnson said back in June 2017. “I’m still amazed how many people I don’t really know that came up to me and told me ‘I’m praying for you.’”

Further information regarding Johnson Jewelry’s future is expected to come at a later date, but according to Schieck, the business will remain operating in downtown Worthington.