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For ‘soul mates’ Ron and Jolee, every day is Valentine’s Day


TWO HEARTS ARE BETTER THAN ONE — Jolee and Ron Johnson hold two pillows autographed by doctors and nurses that Ron received while hospitalized following two heart surgeries. (Star Eagle photo by Kathy Paulsen)


Staff Writer

Sometimes, people are destined or made for each other. They are called soul mates.

Such is true of the romance and marriage of Ron Johnson and Jolee Butler, who met in school. He was a senior and she was a junior. He thought Jolee was cute and frequently asked to borrow her pencil. Eventually he asked her to a movie, but the date she remembers most was Valentine’s Day.

Ron brought her a dozen red roses and took her out to dinner. Jolee had never been given flowers by a boy, and she didn't think to put them in water. Her mother told her when she got home she thought it was rude of Jolee not to take better care of the beautiful gift.

Ron and Jolee continued to see each other for a year and a half. On November 7, 1974, Ron proposed - gave her a beautiful diamond for her birthday - and Jolee said yes.

With the mission of "dear hunting" accomplished, Ron celebrated the next day by going deer hunting with his brother. Jolee laughed as she said, "He always remembers my birthday, because it is always during deer hunting season."

This is what we mean by soul mates. Some women would be perturbed by their boyfriend/husband’s extraordinary interest in the great outdoors. But Jolee is no ordinary person. In fact they both enjoy fishing. Ron laughed and said he was the best fisherman until Jolee learned how to fish. Now she has the title.

Ron and Jolee enjoyed many ice fishing dates in their early times together. They still fish a great many lakes, from the boat or on the ice.

Their love of the great outdoors has been prevalent in their lives, as well as in the lives of their children. For 22 years they have all enjoyed the family cabin at Longville, near Hackensack. A number of family members also have cabins in the area, and their time spent there has become a form of family reunion.

Jolee and Ron weren't able to get to the cabin this past year. There were more important things in store.

When you think Valentine's Day, you think of hearts. But for Jolee and Ron, hearts mean a lot more than romance. Ron suffered his first heart attack in December of 1991 and underwent quad bypass, open heart surgery that Dec. 13 at Abbott Northwestern.

On Feb. 2nd, 1996 Ron suffered a second heart attack, and again had surgery. In June of 1996 the doctors put a defibrillator in his chest. Things seemed to be working well until October of 2001, when Ron once again required bypass surgery.

In 2006, Ron’s doctor told him he would need a heart transplant. Ron was sent to the University of Minnesota, which had done more heart transplants than Abbott Northwestern.

In October 2010, the doctors put Ron on a heart transplant list. When he had not received a new heart by March 2012, the doctors told him they could install an L-Vad, an electric heart pump. It was felt the heart pump would help hold him over until a heart became available. The L-Vad seemed to work well for a short time, but started to cause internal bleeding. Ron was in and out of the hospital a number of times. From March to August 2013, Ron received 22 units of blood.

On Sept. 7, 2013, Ron got a call from doctors informing him they finally had a heart donor for him. Ron received a new heart on Sept. 8, his daughter Amy’s birthday. The heart transplant surgery, the second one that took place at the University of Minnesota that day, took about seven hours to complete, as doctors found a great deal of scar tissue around Ron’s heart.

Ron’s heart transplant was the 793rd transplant performed at the University, and was a wonderful birthday present for the entire family.

While Ron was waiting for his new heart, he and Jolee developed a special friendship with a young girl named Tearney and her mother. Ron was very pleased to visit with Tearney’s mother during his one-month stay at the University. They learned the heart Ron received was going to be given to the young girl, but it was too big, so they gave it to Ron instead. Jolee said it was a special blessing for Ron, as he got his new heart just in time. She hadn't truly realized how sick Ron had been until after the heart transplant had been completed.

Tearney was able to get the perfect heart for her a short time later, and underwent the University’s 795th transplant surgery. Jolee said during one of their last visits to the University, the doctors performed their 799th transplant, and that one was also for a child.

Ron's sister LuAnn found a donor/transplant quote that the family has come to treasure:

"Without the organ donor, there is no story, no hope, no transplant. But when there is an organ donor, life springs from death, sorrow turns to hope and a terrible loss becomes a gift." –UNOS

Ron and Jolee spoke repeatedly about the many great people they have come to know, many who went on to become like family to them. Ron said while he walked the halls during his recovery, the patients would help each other. Jolee said Ron became a "spark plug" who helped keep other patients from getting depressed.

Ron and Jolee also said they could not believe how great all of Ron’s nurses and doctors were through the ordeal. One time shortly after Ron’s surgery, Jolee had to be gone from the ICU unit for a short time. When Ron woke up he discovered that one of the nurses was sitting by his bed, holding his hand, just as Jolee had been doing for him.

Ron is the son of Inez Johnson and the late Gerald Johnson. He is one of six children: Rick, Ron, Ryan, Rollie, LuAnn and Ross.

Ron graduated from Ellendale High School in 1975 and later the vocational school in Albert Lea where he earned his welders license. He worked at Streaters for 10 years until they went on strike. Ron was glad to be able to get a job at Wengers for 13 years following his time at Streaters. He also worked for Oswald Fisheries.

Jolee is the daughter of Lavonn Ruhl and the late Jerry Butler. Jolee is also part of a large family including Jim, Jerry, Jolee, John and Joel.

Jolee graduated from Ellendale in 1976. After working at the Skelly Truck Stop in Ellendale while she was going to school, she went to work at Viracon after graduation and has worked there for 37 years. Jolee is very grateful to Viracon, who has allowed her many times to take family leave so she could be with Ron during his surgeries.

Ron and Jolee were married on June 5, 1976 at St. Marys’ Church shortly after Jolee graduated from high school. They have two children, Amy, 37, and Josh, who was born on Ron and Jolee’s fourth anniversary. Amy is married to Marshall Svoboda and they have three children, Gadge, 10; Graci, 9; and Kaleb, 20 months. Josh shares his life with Amanda Patterson and they have two children, Jozie, 7; and Lillian, 2. Ron and Jolee’s grandchildren are all very special to them and are their pride and joy.

Ron and Jolee have lived in Geneva since 1978 and belong to the Assembly of God Church in Ellendale. Through the years they have seen how God can weave different lives together and create a very happy union. Through it all Ron and Jolee have been there for each other and feel grateful to have each other.

Due to the fact Ron is no longer able to work out of the home, he and Jolee have switched roles. Ron has become the homemaker and does what he can to help keep things in order around the house. He prepares meals for the two of them when Jolee gets home from work. Jolee said he makes great cookies, too, and that she enjoys his snickerdoodles the best.

Many times this winter when the weather has been bad, he has driven her to work.

Ron is hoping he and Jolee will be able to get back to hunting and fishing again, but in the meantime this great couple has been satisfied going for drives and visiting area lakes, observing wildlife like deer and turkeys along the way. They also hope to be able to enjoy time at their cabin once again, as well as ride their horses. The Johnsons have five horses they keep at Jolee’s mother’s farm. Jolee said she never was much of a horseback rider but enjoys going along with the rest of the family, and rides along in the wagon.

Ron has always been an "I-can-do-it-myself" kind of guy. It is hard for him to have others do for him what he thinks he should do for himself. But he has learned sometimes you need a bit of help from a loving wife and old friends, as well as from those who have become new friends.

Ron and Jolee feel blessed to have great people praying for them and for Ron’s recovery from his many ordeals. They are thankful to their neighbors who have “really been there” for them.

More than 1,000 people have sent thoughts and prayers on "Caring Bridge," which helped them deal with some difficult days. It was a succession of heart inspired events, with the help of a lot of people he has encountered along the way, that have taken him to 2014. Ron is amazed at the love and kindness of others, although he would never hesitate to do the same for them.

More than many other couples, Ron and Jolee have shared special times together. They are thankful the doctors have been able to keep Ron's heart ticking all these years. They have also known that each day could have been their last together — and they express their love for each other every day.

Every day is Valentine’s Day for this couple. Theirs is a story about the heart — a defective heart — medical procedures of the heart — a new heart — the heart of your life — the "heart" and stamina of people who just don't quit — and the big heart of family, friends, and the community.

One of the messages from the "Caring Bridge" pages was from Diane Butler, who wrote, "Ron has always had such a kind heart. It is so good to hear that he now has a healthy heart."

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