Obituary of Lester Riley Johnson, Jr.
Lester Riley Johnson, Jr. died peacefully in his Melbourne, Florida home on November 10, 2023. He was surrounded by family and was cared for by his loving wife, Susan Merrill Balfe Johnson.
Lester was born in Miami, Florida and lived there until 2015. His loved growing up in a vibrant town of tropical beauty that became an international city. This love became his “north star” of how he chose to serve Miami. He sought out people who also cared about Miami, including his dear partner and wife, native Miamian, Susan. Their love of boating and enjoying Biscayne Bay inspired them to be early contributors to Shake-A-Leg Miami. Specifically, to provide access to sailing and boating experiences for disabled individuals and youth of all economic backgrounds.
As an Orange Bowl Committee member, Lester’s biggest delight was his many years as chairman of the Orange Bowl International Youth Regatta. A competition that now brings over 700 sailors and a variety of class boats to Miami. Each winter, sailors from 21 countries compete in this internationally known event on Biscayne Bay.
It was competitions like this that inspired Lester and his friend and Olympic sailor, James “Ding” Schoonmaker, and other avid sailors to petition the City of Miami in 1983 to designate land in Coconut Grove that would become the U.S. Sailing Center. City officials agreed to set aside land on S. Bayshore Drive. Fundraising events were organized that included support and appearances from three America’s Cup skippers, Ted Turner, Dennis Conner and Bill Koch. Funding was secured for the building of the facility that now houses the training for the U.S. Olympic Sailing team.
Lester was a proud graduate of the University of Miami (1956). But early on he always believed that if a city was to be great then it should have a great public university. In 1967 Lester, along and several other prominent Miamians, sought Governor Claude Kirk’s approval to designate a public university in Miami. At the time, no public university existed south of Tampa. Embracing the notion that Miami was becoming the gateway to South America and the Caribbean, Lester and his fellow Board of Trustee members launched Florida International University. Lester served as President of the Board of Trustees and later Chairman of FIU Foundation. In 1981 he successfully recruited Gerry Lattin, Associate Dean of the Cornell School of Hotel Administration to start FIU’s School of Hotel, Food and Travel Services.
Third Century USA was created by Lester in 1974. He requested and received authority from President Richard Nixon to allow Miami to become a premiere city for the 1976 celebration of the Bicentennial of the United States of America. At the end of this celebration, the city was given funds to create a lasting monument to the city; which became known as Bicentennial Park in Downtown Miami.
Professionally, Lester was always involved in the insurance industry. His experience at Johnson Insurance Agency and later at Merrill Stevens Dry Dock positioned him to become a key part of a yacht insurance specialty agency called C.A. Hansen Corp. He eventually purchased the agency and had offices in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Annapolis, and New York. He became a Member (“Name”) at Lloyd’s of London and built the Hansen cover into the largest and most profitable program in the market. Their domination of the market lasted for over 20 years. His daughter, Laura Johnson Sherrod, joined him in 1987 and remains in the marine industry. She is currently the Director of Yacht Insurance for Newcoast. Lester’s granddaughter and grandson also have their careers in the marine industry; respectively, Alexandria Horner Olive a yacht sales associate with Northrop & Johnson and James Lester Sherrod, insurance agent with Newcoast.
Lester served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army during the Korean War and was in charge of the Port of Sasebo in Japan. He ultimately achieved the rank of Captain.
He was a graduate of Miami Senior High School (1948) where he played basketball and was on the state championship team. He attended the University of Florida, where he also played basketball for the Gators and joined the Phi Delta Theta fraternity. He later graduated from the University of Miami.
Lester and Susan always made it their priority to do fun things with their children and most of that had to do with sailing on the Ben Gunn; a 38’ Bugeye Ketch.
Lester and Susan were members of the Riviera Country Club, Biscayne Bay Yacht Club and Wildcat Cliffs Country Club (NC). Their church membership at the Christ Anglican Church of Cashiers, NC and later at the Indian River Colony Club Chapel in Melbourne, Florida was a source of faith and friendship for them.
He was loved by his family, friends, and all of those that knew him. His sense of humor was unsurpassed.
He is survived by the love of his life, and wife of 67 years, Susan Merrill Balfe Johnson, as well as daughters Merrill J. Horner (David), Catherine J. Beam (Doug) and Laura J. Sherrod (Scott), grandchildren Riley Beam (Michelle), Nathan Beam (Ellen), Alexandria Olive (Ben), John Horner, James Sherrod and Hannah Sherrod, and great-grandchildren Lucy Beam, Madeline Beam, and Charlotte Beam.
He will be laid to rest at the Cape Canaveral National Cemetery in December 2023.
In lieu of flowers the family asks donations be made to the U.S. Sailing Center or the Salvation Army.