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Former RJ graphic artist dies after traumatic brain injury

Mike Johnson, a former graphic artist at the Las Vegas Review-Journal, died at his home on Jan. 5 after suffering a traumatic brain injury. He was 60.

Johnson was born Aug. 11, 1958, in Heidelberg, Germany, and grew up in various Army bases until he and his family settled in Las Vegas in 1979. He started out working for the Nifty Nickel, a classified ad publication, then moved on to the Las Vegas Sun. In 1985, Johnson was hired as an advertising artist and then as a news artist at the Review-Journal, where he worked for 26 years.

“He was basically a really smart guy who did his research,” Johnson’s wife, Carolyn, said. “He just did so much stuff, it’s hard to keep track.”

Johnson was a self-taught artist with a talent for music and a taste for adrenaline. He played bass guitar in and managed several Las Vegas-based bands and was an avid skydiver until his wife convinced him to give it up.

Johnson was a member of Into The Fire, a skydiving team that later became the Flying Elvi in the 1992 movie “Honeymoon in Vegas,” staring Sarah Jessica Parker and Nicolas Cage. Johnson didn’t jump in the movie because he was recovering from a skydiving accident, but he took on a support role and managed the jump as part of the ground crew.

Johnson survived three major skydiving accidents, including one that left him in the University Medical Center burn unit for more than a month after his parachute collapsed and he crashed into power lines in Pahrump, cutting power to the entire town.

After Johnson was laid off from the Review-Journal in 2011, he turned another one of his passions into a career, working as a range manager at Bass Pro Shops and then a range operator and repairman at Shoot Las Vegas in Goodsprings.

“He was an adventurer. He was a daredevil, and he was very smart,” former Review-Journal reporter A.D. Hopkins said.

Johnson was a voracious researcher, spending hours reading about any news event that caught his attention. As an artist, he would go to sites himself to take reference photos and would pull blueprints so his graphics would be as accurate as possible.

Co-workers remember Johnson as a talented practical joker, who often played pranks and created comical graphics based on events in the newsroom, including a timeline of events after one co-worker cooked fish in a break room microwave. Carolyn Johnson said he wrote short stories and sent out hilarious Christmas letters each year.

Hopkins said Johnson would design funny CD covers for fake bands called Roadkill and Therapeutic Misadventure and left them lying around record stores, where people would try to buy them.

“Any practical joke Mike pulled ended up being elaborate,” Hopkins said.

Johnson is best remembered as the Review-Journal’s resident explosives expert. After going-away parties, friends and co-workers would gather in the Tap House parking lot while Johnson blew something up — most memorably an Associated Press Style Book.

“He was sort of this mysterious, wild character, but we all trusted him,” Review-Journal reporter Henry Brean said. “We trusted him enough to stand not that far away while he blew stuff up.”

Aside from the joking and thrill-seeking, friends and family remember Johnson as a truly kind person despite his rough exterior.

“He was sort of rustic and rough around the edges, but he had such a kind heart and really took care of people,” David Stroud, another former Review-Journal artist, said.

Carolyn Johnson, married to her husband for 23 years, said he was a loving father and husband who was always ready to help a friend in need.

“He was just a really great person — a fun, great person,” she said. “He only saw the best in people.”

Mike Johnson is survived by his wife of 23 years, as well as his son, Jarex Schmidt; his daughter, Rachael Wilson; and his brother, Rick Johnson.

Carolyn Johnson said a memorial service will be scheduled at a later date.

Contact Max Michor at mmichor@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0365. Follow @MaxMichor on Twitter.

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