we have lost yet another aviation pioneer, environmentalist and great
this year... Samuel C. Johnson. He was one of the founders of the EAA’s
Young Eagles program. He died of cancer in his home in Racine,
May 22 at the age of 76.
Johnson was the chairman emeritus of SC Johnson Wax and was as devoted to aviation as his father, who in 1935 flew a Sikorsky S-38 amphibian to Brazil in search of Carnauba palms, a key ingredient in wax. He was key in the construction of a replica of his father’s plane and produced a movie about its construction and epic reenactment flight in 1998.
Samuel C. Johnson believed that business should serve a higher purpose in life, and be managed for the next generation versus the next quarter’s bottom-line. The man known affectionately by all as simply Sam, leaves a legacy of visionary leadership, remarkable success and great humanitarianism as a model for others.
Take a 1928 biplane amphibian and a 7500-mile aerial adventure to the primitive jungles of Brazil, and what have you got? Johnson's Wax!
By James Lawrence
ONCE UPON A TIME, A MAN WHO RAN A STRUGGLING FAMILY COMPANY DURING THE GREAT DEPRESSION HAD A VISION. He would make a daring journey in his fabulous flying boat in the hope of revitalizing the company's flagging fortunes.
This is the story of how his son, heir to that company once known as Johnson's Wax (today called S.C. Johnson), had his own epiphany: to re-energize the company and family spirit by making the same flight 60 years later—in the identical airplane his father had flown.
There was just one rather formidable obstacle: The wonderful amphibian biplane that had carried Samuel Curtis Johnson's father all the way to Brazil in 1935 had unceremoniously sunk to the bottom of Manokwari Bay, Indonesia, in 1938. There were no others in existence anywhere in the world.
Imagine this wonderfully sleek, 1930s-era speedboat, handcrafted in expensive hardwoods and lavishly decked out in cabin upholstery, curtains and appointments befitting a classy yacht. Now rig up a couple of wings and slap on two 450-hp Pratt & Whitney R-985 Wasp Junior engines, and you've got the quintessential Terry and the Pirates-era amphibian: the Sikorsky S-38 Flying Boat.
"Our trip to Brazil in many ways exemplifies the company spirit that began with my father," says Sam from his corporate office in Racine, Wis. "He believed there was a world market out there for our enterprise. His vision is our continuing inspiration. The trip I wanted to make was meant to keep that spirit alive."
It turned out to be one of the greatest experiences of Sam's life, just as it had been for his father, Herbert Fisk Johnson.
S.C. Johnson went through the same agonies that other businesses suffered during the Great Depression. "My father took over in 1928, in his late 20s," Sam explains, "and almost immediately the company seemed to be evaporating around him."
Although he was determined to keep his company afloat, Herbert was concerned that the supply of the carnauba palm—the tall, slender tree that forms wax on the lower surfaces of its leaves—might become depleted.
"Carnauba wax made our product better than anybody else's," says Sam. "At the time, it grew only in northeastern Brazil. So Dad decided he had to go to that place, where very few people from up north had ever been, to ensure the future supply of carnauba."
When Herbert was told it would take a year by traditional land or sea routes, too long a leave of absence for a corporate head, he searched for alternatives. "And he bought this used airplane," Sam remembers, "a Sikorsky S-38 Flying Boat. He planned out the trip for a year, hired a 27-year-old Navy pilot, and off they went to learn the secrets of the carnauba palm."
The flight went off without a hitch. Herbert was eventually able to bring back a wealth of information on the growth, cultivation and refining of carnauba wax.
"From that time forward, everything turned around for the company," Sam notes.
Today, S.C. Johnson is a multi-billion-dollar company that markets products in more than 100 countries worldwide. With all that success and a congenial, cohesive brood of spirited fifth-generation Johnsons to take over the four family enterprises, what need could there be to stoke an already blazing fire?
"My dad had written a book about his flight, mostly for friends and the company. Ten years ago, I found the copy that he had given me when I was eight years old. I'd completely forgotten about it. Inside, he'd written, 'To Sammy, I hope you make this trip someday.'
"That simple inscription changed my life," Sam continues. "I reread it and started thinking about it. Something must have happened to him on that trip. Maybe I could better understand what he was all about—reconnect with what he was thinking and trying to accomplish."
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