Dr. Thomas David ("Dave") Johnson

January 19, 1951 ~ May 13, 2022 (age 71)


Dave Johnson was born in Hammond, Indiana on January 19, 1951 to Katherine Basham and Thomas Porter Johnson. He was raised in Kentucky, first on his grandparents’ farm near Centerville, then in Owensboro, until the family moved to Texas. They lived in Longview, Denton, and Irving. Dave and his mother, a high-school biology teacher, moved to San Angelo for his first year of high school, then to the Rio Grande Valley, where he finished high school in Edinburg and graduated from what was then called Pan American University, now part of UT RGV, with a BS in Biology. He obtained a Master’s degree in Marine Botany, and taught science at several schools in the RGV.

In 1975, he moved to Houston, and began working as a clinical lab technician at a commercial laboratory. After a couple of years he applied to graduate school in Pharmacology at the University of Houston College of Pharmacy.  He was accepted, and worked closely with his adviser, Dave Clarke, PhD, a relationship that continued throughout Dave’s life. While in graduate school, he was offered the opportunity to spend 1981 in Antarctica doing cryobiology research. Never one to turn down an adventure, he flew to Valparaiso, Chile and took an icebreaker to Palmer Station, Antarctica, where he spent the year collecting what he said was the largest land animal on that continent – a small wingless fly that would freeze each winter and then come back to life. He also managed to get himself banned from the continent, due to an adventure that took him and his friend Bob far outside the five-mile limit in a Zodiac. There were other adventures, including one with a penguin that sought refuge in his Zodiac, only to be followed by a very hungry leopard seal.

Dave’s interest in Buddhism flowered early with exposure to Alan Watts at the age of 14. While in Antarctica, using Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind as a guide, he started a meditation practice. When his year in Antarctica was over, he decided to spend time at the San Francisco Zen Center and Green Gulch Farms.  This early sojourn laid a foundation for later, dedicated practice.

Finishing his PhD in November 1984, he married Luanne Novak and started working for Baylor College of Medicine in the Department of Anesthesiology, starting off doing OB Anesthesia research. He stayed with Baylor in several different roles until he retired in January 2020. In his last years at Baylor, he was the Physiology Course Coordinator and Research Course Coordinator in the School for Health Professions, where he taught students in the Physician Assistant, Nurse Anesthetists, Orthotics & Prosthetics, and Genetic Counseling programs.  He won several teaching awards, and was renowned for his “Science History Corner” which supplied his students with historical data that they could use for extra credit on their exams.

In 1990, he and Luanne welcomed their daughter Anna, whom Dave always said was his best teacher. In the early 1990s he started meditating with the Southwest Chogye Zen Academy, a Korean temple in West Houston. Friendships that started there continued till the end of his life. He and his friend Craig Learned travelled to Korea to visit temples and meet with his Korean teacher, Myo Bong Sunim.

In the mid-1990s, Dave attended a retreat hosted by the Houston Zen Community at the Margaret Austin Center in Chapel Hill, TX with Tenshin Reb Anderson from the San Francisco Zen Center, who took him on as a student. He strongly suggested that Dave start meditating with the Houston Zen Community. Dave took the advice to heart, and started sitting with the group, attending their Sunday night meditations at the First Unitarian Universalist Church, becoming an active member. In 1997, he participated in a ceremony called a Jukai, where students dedicate themselves to the precepts of Buddhism, and are given their Buddhist names. Dave was named Yazan, which means Wild Mountains, an apt moniker. He continued to study, meditate, attend retreats, and work to grow HZC with his dharma sisters and brothers. HZC did indeed grow with the arrival of Setsuan Gaylen Godwin as teacher, first moving to a bungalow at Heights Blvd. and 13th Street, and then to its current location at 1605 Heights Blvd., where it is now the Auspicious Cloud Temple of the Houston Zen Center, and Setsuan Gaylen is the Abbot.  In 2008, Dave was ordained as a Buddhist priest. He continued to study, teach, and meditate, traveling to San Francisco, Green Gulch Farms in Marin County, Tassajara Zen Center, Great Vow Zen Center, and eventually to Japan to spend a month at a Zen Temple.

None of the preceding gives the reader an inkling of the real Dave: incessantly curious, irreverent, brilliant, fearless, argumentative, compassionate, a dedicated teacher – whether the subject was Cardiac Physiology or the Lotus Sutra, he would find a way to make it understandable. He loved boats, especially sailboats, and was ecstatic on East Bay, watching the pelicans and tacking his way back to Stingaree Marina. Obsessed with the space program and anything aeronautical, at one point he applied to the astronaut corps. He was an accomplished artist: he was famous for his Cheeto sculptures, and for suspending a loveseat from the rafters of his workshop like a porch swing, with neon around the bottom. He loved travel and took Anna to China and India on Buddhist history adventures. He snorkeled in Bali, hiked to a volcano at dawn in Indonesia, pinched posters from the Tube in London, castle-hopped in Spain, flew hang gliders in Honduras, caved in South Texas, collected plants in a cloud forest in Mexico, and ziplined in Costa Rica. From Tierra del Fuego to Nova Scotia, Shanghai to Barcelona, he embraced the world. He was a collector, a scavenger and a pack rat. He loved Christmas and had so many ornaments that he needed two trees to display just the best of them.

He was generous, romantic, absurd, and a lover of many cats, but none as treasured as Fuzzy, who left us two weeks after Dave’s departure. Left to grieve are his wife Luanne Novak, daughter Anna Hunter, her husband Sean and the world’s cutest grandbaby, Isla Alice, uncle Garth Johnson of Beaver Dam, Kentucky, along with countless friends. For those so inclined, gifts can be made to the Houston Zen Center in memory of Yazan Dave Johnson.

Many, many people helped in the last five years through Dave’s health challenges. Among them are Dr. Mark Udden at Baylor College of Medicine Department of Hematology, a great physician and a true friend; Ms. Pearl Holiday, caregiver extraordinaire; wonderful friends, neighbors, and numerous dharma sisters and brothers from HZC and beyond, whose love and generosity knew no limits. A service is scheduled for Saturday, July 30, 2022 at 1:00 pm at the Houston Zen Center at 1605 Heights Boulevard, Houston, TX 77008.


Funeral Service
July 30, 2022

1:00 PM
Houston Zen Center
1605 Heights Blvd.
Houston, TX 77008

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