Remembering Dave Johnson
Words by Founding Principal Tom Zurowski
I was in business with Dave Johnson for 30 years.
We met in grad school at the University of Illinois, but we never really hung out together all that much. I do remember the first time I met him, one Saturday morning, at the beginning of football season. Dave and my roommate were both Michigan undergrads and in the MBA program at U of I. Dave showed up at our apartment, bright and early, and started blasting one of his Michigan marching band albums on my roommate’s stereo. If you went to U of I in the 70’s, you pretty much hated Michigan because they were so good, and I now had two fans in my apartment!
Dave informed me that he played in two Rose Bowls and when I asked him what he played, he answered, “TUBA!” He insisted that he and his marching band buddy, Bernie, invented The Wave. I was always fascinated by the stories he told, but was never sure what was hyperbole and what was reality.
Anyone that met Dave in school knew how smart he was. Back then, he wanted to prove that he could be both a computer geek AND a successful architect. Mind you, in the 80’s, few people could grasp where computers would lead our profession. But Dave refused to be limited by what people told him computers were capable of; he had a unique, almost childlike curiosity, wondering how far he could go with these “toys.”
A few years later, I was hanging out at an industry party with Dave, when he asked me if I ever thought of running my own firm. Being asked that question by someone I respected intrigued me. A lot! Dave and I were soon on that very path with a couple of other guys, trying to see if we could work together and build a practice. We called ourselves Midnight Architects, since we were all moonlighting. One guy dropped out after completing a feasibility study for a synagogue expansion and the other three of us moved forward, plotting our escape to form our own practice during early morning meetings. After about six months, we started looking for space - and found it on the top floor of Tribune Tower. What guts we had!
We started Eastlake with a small expansion project for an advertising agency and a few grand in the bank. Our first year in business, each of us took less than $10,000 home, but we had firmly committed to our values: doing great work, gaining recognition, making good money (aspirational, at that time,) and most of all, having fun! We still hold these values true at Eastlake, thirty years later.
I remember that the year we founded the studio, Dave had accumulated as much stress as a 29 year-old could squeeze into his life: he started a new business; bought a house; had a child; and experienced the death of his father-in-law. But you would never know it. He was always the calmest head in the room and he always seemed to be looking for another challenge.
Dave landed us on the cover of Mac Chicago magazine. He was also the one who figured out how to get us featured in a cover story for Interiors and Sources magazine, where we were dubbed “Architects of the Future.” We were architects, but we were also building websites and interactive displays. Then we started developing information management tools for hospitals and universities, founding a second company, Wizard Software. It took a couple of hiring mistakes for Dave to realize that he needed to focus on software development to grow that business and move on from design.
It was that year, 2001, when Dave helped me to learn how to lead Eastlake Studio alone. I didn’t feel ready, but we each figured out our own ways. Times were challenging. Not only were we hit by the dot-com crash, but the twin towers came down that year, too. We did a pretty good job of staying out of each other’s way, and by 2017, we had assembled more than 40 employees, combined, and could say we ran two successful companies.
Dave and I eventually separated Eastlake Studio and Wizard Software. I was ready, but wondered what it meant for our relationship. He was spending more time in San Diego, and traveling all over the world. Would I ever see him again?
When Dave called to tell me about his cancer diagnosis last summer, I was blown away. He, on the other hand, was completely positive and convinced he was going to beat it. The doctors thought it was Stage One, at first. He called me a couple weeks later to let me know that the cancer had spread and was now Stage Four. He was still upbeat and hopeful. Shoot, two weeks before he passed, he was sharing his excitement about getting in to see the top doc for pancreatic cancer at University of San Diego.
I knew I needed to get out there to see him, but business and family kept me in Chicago until New Year’s Eve. When we landed, it felt like it took forever to get to the hospital. But once we got there, time stood still. Dave was barely holding on, but he was not giving up. I had a feeling that Dave sensed my presence. I thanked him for giving me the confidence to build a business, and I told him that there are a lot of people in this world who are also thankful for having him in their lives.
To those of you who knew him, let’s keep his spirit in our memories and remember that without Dave, our lives would all be quite different.