Sioux Falls, SD
Balloons and memories filled the day that marked the one year anniversary of South Dakota Correctional Officer Ronald 'RJ' Johnson's death.
Johnson was killed on his birthday a year ago when two inmates tried to escape from the South Dakota State Penitentiary.
Instead of remembering the events of that day, Johnson's family focused on the man who would have been 64 years old Thursday.
Johnson has two children and six grandchildren who call RJ their hero. Thursday that hero was celebrated for his kind heart, caring spirit and his more than two decades serving the state as a correctional officer.
A flag bearing RJ's image hangs outside the home where his wife lives and where his children and grandchildren made so many memories.
"The house, the things around him, makes me feel at peace a little bit that I have those things. They mean a lot to me," RJ's wife, Lynette Johnson, said.
Pictures of RJ and his family adorn the house a year after he was killed during his shift at the penitentiary. That day was also his birthday and Thursday, family and friends gathered at the home to celebrate.
"We have a lot of support from a lot of friends. They're great and if there is anything I need or need help, they're right there," Lynette said.
And they were there Thursday, boarding a bus for the hour-long trip to the cemetery where RJ is buried. With balloons and birthday cards, they celebrated the life of the dedicated family man.
"The kids miss their 'papa.' Miss Ashlen (Johnson’s granddaughter) made a card and she put RJ on it and she decided she's going to put it on a balloon when we let the balloons go off because they wanted to know how papa is going to get his balloons," Lynette said.
And as the balloons were released, RJ's family was able to focus on the correctional officer and not the events that happened a year ago.
"We keep going over it, what happened, you forget the person. To have it all done, I'm never going to say their names again. It's dad. He's our hero. He'll live forever that way and I hope everybody else can see it that way," RJ's daughter, Toni Schafer, said.
Lynette says she gave RJ an extra kiss a year ago because it was his birthday, and she says she's glad she did because it was the last one she would ever give him.
Donations are currently being accepted for the RJ Johnson Memorial Fund at Wells Fargo Bank to help the family with traveling costs to go to Washington, D.C. and Florida this summer where memorials will be dedicated in honor of the fallen correctional officer.