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'I don't feel like there's anything left undone': Sheriff Johnson reflects on his career

Sheriff Kris Johnson will be retiring from 30 years with the Goodhue County Sheriff's Office on Jan. 7, 2019. Johnson said he never intended to hold the top post, although he worked in almost every other capacity. He pinned on the interim star in August after Scott McNurlin retired early. Rachel Fergus / RiverTown Multimedia

"I"m the luckiest guy, ever," said Goodhue County Sheriff Kris Johnson as he reflected on his work, his time with the sheriff's department and his rapidly approaching retirement. Part of the reason that Johnson feels lucky is because his career turned out much differently than he ever thought that it would.

When Johnson was in college he was sure that he would become a teacher and he earned an education degree.

"I've always told people that teaching is the best thing that never happened to me, in that I got the chance to arrive here," Johnson said through a chuckle.

During the summers off from college, Johnson worked at the sheriff's department as a dispatcher and in the jail. The son of a Red Wing police office explained that it paid a lot better than most college-student-level summer jobs and, as an added bonus, he enjoyed the work.

After graduating from Hamline University in St. Paul, Johnson did some substitute teaching and continued working at the sheriff's department until he could find a full-time teaching job. During that time, a coworker told Johnson that he was going to be a "lifer" which, according to Johnson, is someone who spends their whole career in the department.

Johnson was originally frustrated by the insinuation that he would never become a teacher. However, he explained there were two things that tipped the scales away from teaching toward law enforcement: a love of the job, and student loans.

Over 30 years later and less than two weeks from retirement, Johnson has to agree: He was a lifer with Goodhue County Sheriff's Office.

"I just really enjoyed working for Goodhue County," Johnson explained. "It's been easy to come to work, for the most part. I mean there's days where you don't like it or things happen that you don't necessarily care to have seen, but for the most part, I think most of us (who) are able to make it a career have been able to do so because the good outweighs the bad."

In high school and college Johnson did not see himself in law enforcement. He definitely did not see himself as sheriff. In fact, he decided early in his career that he would never run for sheriff.

According to Johnson, he has a personality that prefers to work in the background and not get much attention.

"My philosophy my whole time here was I'm just going to do the best job I can do, and if I don't hear anything, that's a good thing," he explained.

Since sheriff races are very public and, at times, pointed and contentious, Johnson felt no need to jump into that world of politics.

Johnson became Goodhue County's interim sheriff when Scott McNurlin retired in August 2018. Johnson and McNurlin have known each other since they were high school classmates and friends for many years. Johnson's plan for the last few years was to retire with McNurlin in January 2019. "He just beat me to the door," laughed Johnson.

Johnson had served as chief deputy for McNurlin and was approved by the Goodhue County Board to serve out McNurlin's term.

Marty Kelly was elected on Nov. 6 as the county's next sheriff.

Now, one of Johnson's tasks is to offer Kelly advice and answer any questions that the sheriff-elect may have. "The idea behind that is to just offer as much advice as I'm asked of, I want to give them the opportunity to do what they want to do and not color it from my perspective," Johnson said.

When McNurlin retired, he told Johnson to call if he ever had any questions. Johnson has, in turn, extended that invitation to Kelly — who was with the Red Wing Police Department — and his chief deputy, Jeremy Lerfald — who most recently was with the Lakeville Police Department. Johnson has also taken-on the role of reassuring everyone in the department that this transition will be OK. Change, any change, can be hard for people. So, having a both new sheriff and deputy coming into the department can be daunting for some employees. Johnson has, he explained, been working to ensure the nervous that everything will be fine.

Once Kelly officially becomes sheriff at 12:01 a.m., Monday, Jan. 7, Johnson will be headed to retirement. When asked if he had any plans for retirement, Johnson leaned back in his chair, smiled, and resolutely declared: "Nothing!" There are house projects that Johnson wants to get to and a variety of small tasks, but nothing extreme, he is mostly just excited to spend some time doing, as he put it, nothing.