He was the youngest of 13 children. With all those older siblings to influence him, it’s no wonder Tiger Johnson developed such an indelible personality. He made friends wherever he went.
Clarence Richard Johnson Jr. was born Nov. 18, 1963. “Tiger,” as he was known to his many friends and family, died Dec. 30. He was 57.
Tiger graduated from Coronado High School in 1982. He was an outstanding fullback on the football team. He was also a third baseman and power hitter for the baseball team. He was a Little League and Pony League All-Star, with a record 12 home runs out of 20 games during his last year in Little League, winning him MVP honors.
His passion early on was surfing. He grew up surfing Coronado’s North Beach and North Island with his brothers. He also surfed a lot in Imperial Beach, where he resided at the time of his death.
In 1987 Tiger made the pilgrimage to Hawaii with his brother Peter, as so many other Coronado surfers had done before. He lived in Hawaii for five years before returning to Coronado to help care for his ailing father.
“I was a Chart House manager and hardcore surfer,” said Peter. “Once we landed in Hawaii, Tiger quite naturally fell into that same routine – surf by day, restaurant work by night.
“He surfed almost daily when he lived in Hawaii. We would go to secret, exotic surf spots along the Hana coast. He was good enough to surf Honolua Bay and the outer reefs of Maui, but he was sometimes a little too adventurous, and found himself in dangerous situations. We reminisced about those memories until his final days.”
The Johnson and Sweeney families merged in 1961 when Captain C.R. Johnson married Ethel Mathewson-Sweeney. She had five children, aged 3-11; he had seven, aged 2-14.
Tiger was born November 18, 1963 as the only child in this new marriage, validating the old saying, “Yours, mine and ours.” Older brother Bruce Johnson recalled, “He was like a breath of fresh air, little Tiger, among all these older siblings.”
“Tiger was the glue that held us all together at times,” said Peter. “You can imagine how crazy it was with that many kids under one roof. Of course, every one of us was adventurous in our own way, and sometimes that would lead to trouble, and Tiger was no exception. We all adored Tiger. Our affection for him was felt throughout his life.”
The Johnson/Sweeney home, at 575 A Avenue, was scene of many a get-together during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, as all the children and their many friends gathered there for beer parties, bike race stops or just swimming in the family pool. It has become somewhat legendary in early Coronado lore, a form of societal landmark of the time.
Tiger’s father, Captain C.R. “Johnny” Johnson, was a highly decorated fighter pilot in WWII and Korea. Upon retirement at the rank of captain, he had received numerous combat air medals, including the Medal of Valor. His favorite memory, however, wasn’t about war or flying, it was dancing with Marilyn Monroe in a translucent dress – a story he told often, and one that Tiger never tired of hearing.
Tiger lived his life believing that one should always give more than one takes. He was influenced greatly by his relationship with God, especially in his adult years.
He had been working with his brother Peter at Delray Surfboards the past four years as shop manager and in charge of deliveries. He was in good spirits and happy about his work, according to co-workers. “The customer service skills Tiger brought into the business helped us build it to the success it is today,” said Peter.
Restaurant work was Tiger’s forte. He was a people person, which made him a natural as a waiter in top restaurants. Customer service was everything to Tiger. He worked for the Chart House in San Diego and Hawaii, where he twice won Employee of the Year at the Kahului Chart House in Maui for his hard work and great attitude.
Locally, he worked at Coronado’s Costa Azul restaurant for 14 years, which is where most Coronadans will remember him. Tiger had many friends and was beloved and respected.
“Tiger was a really great part of Costa Azul,” said owner and friend, Brant Sarber. Customers always asked for him when they came in, and still do. He was a natural at waiting tables. He remembered everyone’s name and the customers adored him.
“From an owner/manager’s perspective, you couldn’t ask for anyone better. He was always willing to do anything we wanted him to do. He was like a little brother to me, and he was a big part of the Costa Azul family.”
On Facebook, the comments continue to flood in at news of Tiger’s passing, comments such as, “Tiger always took very good care of our family at Costa Azul,” “Tiger had a big heart and a bigger roar,” “We will miss his big smile and belly laugh,” and, “Tiger had the biggest heart, so much love. (I’ve) loved him since we were little kids.”
Tiger Johnson is survived by nine brothers and sisters – Bruce Johnson, John Sweeney, Peter Johnson, Georgia Johnson, Patricia Johnson-Dunbar, Elizabeth Johnson-Richie, Virginia Johnson-Tuchschere, Emma Sweeney and Margaret Johnson. He is predeceased by his parents, Captain Johnny Johnson and Ethel Marie Mathewson, brothers Al Sweeney, Bill Sweeney and Dan Sweeney.
The family has planned a traditional Hawaiian paddle out at Coronado’s Shipwreck Beach for Saturday, March 27, at 9 a.m.
Editor’s Note: Joe Ditler is an author, historian and frequent contributor to The Coronado Times. One of the services he provides is the capturing of one’s story in obituary format, and, when possible, before it’s too late, in living-obituary format. In the latter, he sits down with our community elders to create a visual and oral legacy that will be appreciated for generations of his or her family to come. On the digital recording of the interview, family members hear the subject telling their very special story, in their own voice. They hear them laugh. They hear them cry. In Ditler’s words, “Sitting down and doing a living-obituary is the most special gift in the world you can leave for your family.” For more information, write [email protected].