Jonny Law is gone.
That is what he called himself — at least with his email address. Retired Maine Game Warden and two-term sheriff of Waldo County, author and artist John Ford Sr. of Brooks passed away in November after a 20-year battle with cancer.
John was not a close friend of mine — at least not in the conventional sense. We played golf in Brooks one time. And we chatted a lot at sportsman shows and book signings. Diane and I visited John and Judy at their home during a photo shoot for a story I did on him for the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He invited me to walk some woods with him that he thought I might like to hunt. For many years, he wrote a wonderful column, “Game Warden’s Diary,” for my publication the Northwoods Sporting Journal.
A gifted storyteller who polished and honed the knack of self-deprecation into almost a fine art, John was a delight to edit and his prose a laugh a minute. Although social chit-chat is generally avoided in my email conversations, John and I did develop a kind of a pen-pal email friendship. It just seemed a natural give and take that grew with time. We talked politics, fish and wildlife issues and the ups and downs of living.
He encouraged me and lifted my spirits during my bout with cancer and subsequent surgery. What I learned quickly about John was that behind the funny quips and easygoing spontaneity resided a man of depth, unwavering optimism, personal courage and deep faith. John Ford, the man, more than the storyteller, was a source of inspiration for me. And I told him so.
Returning from a week in the North Woods at deer camp, the news of John’s passing stunned me. Just a few weeks before we had chatted by email. He said he was sending his monthly column early in anticipation of another round of chemo treatments. He talked about a big buck shot by a young fella in town, too many turkeys at his bird feeder, and how “we both are blessed with every new morning.”
On Nov. 24, a celebration of life was held for John in the gymnasium at Unity College. Those of us in attendance learned there that during his final hours from a hospital bed he made it clear to family and close friends that there was to be no sadness as his service. He wanted his celebration of life to be marked not by somberness or grief, but by his hallmark — humor, and lots of funny stories.
The gracious, good-hearted man from Brooks got his wish, in spades. Oh, there was ceremonial dignity and moments of military-style solemnity with “Taps,” bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace” and a flag presentation and law enforcement officers in full dress uniform, but overall it was the friends and family’s recounting of funny stories from Warden Ford’s colorful career in conservation law enforcement. The gym was overflowing with people who knew and loved John Ford for the good and fair lawman that he was. Truth be told, there were probably a few poachers among the bowed heads paying their final respects as well. The folklore declares that Warden Ford could issue you a summons and still make you feel like his friend!
So be happy for John Ford. By his own account, he lived far beyond his allotted time, beating back cancer time and time again. He lived to work at what he loved, to share life with Judy, and see his children have children. He wrote some highly popular books, was a talented artist and made friends wherever he went and left them all with a smile on their face.
His real legacy, though, if you ask me, was his capacity to forgive others and the way he handled whatever life dealt him with grace, courage and unshakable faith in his Creator and Redeemer.
Goodbye, Jonny Law.