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Moorhead, Minn., graduate who carried cross across country found dead in hotel room

Moorhead native Chuck Johnson holds a large cross in this undated photo. Johnson, who carried the cross across the country a dozen times, died last week in South Carolina from a heart attack. Special to The Forum

MOORHEAD - Everyone has their crosses to bear in life, but unlike others, Charles "Chuck" Johnson must have had the saying written on his soul.

The 1980 Moorhead High School graduate crossed the country a dozen times in the last 11 years on a quest he said was given him by God.

But last week, in a hotel room in Florence, S.C., he laid his burden down for the last time, succumbing to a heart attack at age 49.

Johnson is perhaps best known across the country as "Cross Carrier Chuck."

Thanks to the Internet, video cameras and cellphones, dozens of videos have been posted of his travels over the years by reporters and those who chanced upon him in his travels.

"God always provides. ... I don't worry about tomorrow. I just have today with Jesus," he said in one video from South Carolina, adding that people should get baptized.

His sister, Kris Valan of Moorhead, said her brother was always someone who did his own thing.

"He was marching to the beat of his own drummer, and always did. He felt like what he was doing was his job. It was his calling," she said Tuesday.

Johnson was born Nov. 14, 1961, to Herbert Lee and Joyce Johnson in Anaheim, Calif., and the family moved around the country with their father's work in the Air Force, and later as an engineer for aircraft firms, Valan said.

The family moved to Moorhead as he started the seventh grade. Their parents were very spiritual, Valan said.

She said her brother made people laugh. He was in football and track and loved hunting and fishing. As he grew older, he was also something of a disco dandy: well-dressed, popular with the girls, and often practicing dance moves a la "Saturday Night Fever."

After he graduated, he attended Minnesota State University Moorhead for a couple of years and ran track, too, she said.

Then he moved to the San Jose area in California to live with his parents.

It was after high school that he began having problems with drinking, she said. He had many jobs, and had been briefly married, Valan said.

He eventually was baptized in a church in northern California on Aug. 24, 1987, she said, noting that it was ironically the same date as his death.

For Johnson, the baptism was an epiphany.

"That's when God touched me," he said in one video. That's when he began lugging 86 pounds of solid 4-by-4 oak cross on the weekends.

In 2000, it became what he said was a 10-year mission in life, Valan said.

In several videos, Johnson told people that God bid him to take $55 and make a cross. He said when he was done, he had about $1.50 left, and he started walking, relying on donations to pay for food and shelter. And when he didn't have enough money, he slept outside.

Over the years, he built several crosses, some of wood, some of plastic, all of them eventually filled with names, dates, salutations and blessings from those he met on the road.

Often, he was affable in telling his story.

"I'm known as Cross Carrier Chuck. You see it all over the Internet," he told one family he met in Norman, Okla., just before last Christmas.

"I'm writing a book about it, it's called 'I carry the cross, God does all the work,' " Johnson told the family in a video posted on YouTube.

Sometimes, bitterness might take hold, especially in Boone, N.C.

"I haven't talked to one soul, and I've been here three days," he said. "It's the most unholy city I've ever walked through," he told a reporter.

"I've went through Las Vegas five times and people talk to you. Not even one soul in this town has said hello," he said. "So, I would say that God would probably put a tornado through this town one day. ... It is an unholy place. It's going to perish, trust me."

Valan said contact with her brother was sporadic over the years. He could either not afford a cell phone, or when he had one, it would be taken from him in one of many robberies he fell victim to on the streets, she said.

His drinking got him into trouble, she said, including fights in bars.

The family couldn't get in touch with him for a time after his brother, Dan, died in 2001 from an aneurysm, Valan said.

A trust fund set up by Johnson's father helped provide him some necessities, she said.

"I think nothing else was working in his life. And he wanted to do this journey," Valan said.

The lack of contact was hard on her family, and especially for her father, who is in hospice care in Moorhead.

"I know his fear was something terrible would happen to Chuck and we wouldn't know," Valan said.

The family's last contact with him was three weeks ago. He had complained of feeling unwell, just as he had a few weeks before. But he had no money to go to a hospital, Valan said.

The Florence County Sheriff's Office said Johnson checked into the Travelhouse Inn near the junction of Highway 52 and Interstate 95 in Florence, S.C.

On Aug. 24, he was found dead in his room. The coroner later determined he died of a heart attack.

Johnson's family has arranged to have his remains cremated and returned to Moorhead, Valan said.

A white cross was in the room, a sheriff's office spokesman wrote in an email. However, it was not part of the scope of the investigation, and it's unknown whether it is part of any of Johnson's belongings that will be returned to his family, the spokesman said.

"I think he made a difference in a lot of people's lives," Valan said. "He would stop and pray with people. I know he did, just from letters my dad would show us. I need to think that and I want to think that."

Johnson is survived by his father and stepmother, Herbert Lee and Mary of Moorhead; his sister, Kris (Orlen) Valan; and one brother, Mike (Nancy) Johnson of Watertown, S.D.

Several friends posted notes remembering Johnson on the website of Wright Funeral Home in Moorhead, which has handled the funeral arrangements.

"Chuck has touched many lives through laughter and tears and I have many happy memories of him. His beautiful bright eyes and contagious smile and laughter were like no other. God was probably running out of jokes in heaven so he needed to call on the master," said Lori Spiry Raun.

"Chuck was a very important person to me in high school," said Julie (Albertson) Feske. "I will always remember his infectious laugh and ability to out-dance anyone."

The family will hold a private service today, Valan said. They also hope to receive his cremains today. Valan said the ashes will be spread at places of meaning to him and the family.

"I just hope that he did make a difference and touched people's lives," Valan said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583