Johnny Downs Jr. was born in Hollywood to a famous actor. He entered the seminary with aspirations of becoming a priest. He owned a small chain of restaurants in Sweden. The signposts of his life steered him in many directions before he discovered his real passion was teaching young children, which he did until the very end.
John Gerald Downs Jr. was born Oct. 1, 1944 to John and June Downs. He was the only son of their five children. John died Dec. 24 after a brief battle with cancer, at his home, surrounded by family and close friends. He was 67.
His father was a star of Vaudeville, the Broadway stage, the big screen and TV. Johnny Downs Sr. was a child actor in the original Our Gang comedy series and went on to star opposite such actors as Ronald Reagan and Judy Garland. While the senior Downs had almost 100 film credits, he was better known for his singing and dancing.
In 1953 he retired from show business and moved his young family to Coronado. He hosted a popular television cartoon show with his signature greeting, “Howdy, howdy, howdy.”
Johnny Downs Jr. went to and then University High School (Class of ’63). He attended college at Gonzaga University, and then entered the seminary at the University of San Diego, where he studied for three years for the priesthood before changing his major to philosophy.
He graduated with a degree in philosophy and an impulsive desire to see the world. He went to Germany, where he attended the University of Heidelberg for two years, majoring in philosophy and religious studies. In his spare time he took odd jobs in restaurants, hospitals, and teaching English before deciding to explore the world of culinary arts.
A quick study, and blessed with his father’s good looks and charm, John began to absorb every aspect of the restaurant industry. He attended an international chef school in Sweden, and then opened three restaurants there, offering a wide variety of American dining experiences to customers.
Impassioned about his career, John worked 18-hour days for nine years before a collapsed lung convinced him to return to Coronado and his family.
John decided to get his teaching credential in 1979, and it was in this field that he found his greatest professional gratification. He began teaching at Tiffany Elementary School in Bonita, and then transferred to the tougher challenges of Lauderbach Elementary School in Chula Vista. He was there for 18 years before moving to Vista Square Elementary School, where he worked the final five years of his teaching career.
John specialized in math, language and science and was adored by his many young students. He was rewarded as “Teacher of the Year” for his efforts. John retired from teaching in June.
John found an unexpected treasure in 2001 when he met and fell in love with another teacher, Lila Ivanova, from Kiev, Ukraine. They were married in 2006. “Meeting Johnny was the greatest single moment for me,” said Lila. “Our 10 years together were the best years of my life.”
Johnny was a gifted athlete. While he loved the beach and the ocean – surfing, diving, sailing, fishing and kayaking – his primary love was tennis. He was a doubles specialist. He had very quick hands at the net and subscribed to an aggressive serve-and-volley approach to the game, which made him a popular partner.
“I remember in 1965 my parents let my brother Johnny take me to the Beatles concert at Balboa Park,” remembered sister Reene Faulstich. “I was only nine then. My brother was such a good guy. He had this marvelous free spirit and was a one-of-a-kind person. A decade separated us in age, and he was gone so many years, but I dearly loved my big brother.”
Sister Mary Hodgson was the oldest of the Downs children. She recalled her brother visiting her in Germany. “Johnny came to visit us in Waldorf,” she said. “It was Christmas 1972 and he made this grand entrance in his classic Porsche. In the back seat he had his gift for my children, a real Las Vegas one-armed bandit.
“Yes, a slot machine with a bag of Swedish Kroner to feed it,” she recalled fondly. “That slot machine followed us around the world and became one of our icons for Johnny. His gift embodied one of his favorite sayings that revealed so much of his compassion and love for others: ‘PAY IT FORWARD.’”
Johnny died during the holiday season, prompting his sister Mollie Curtis to write a poem, part of which included: “Snowflakes are with us for far too short a time … just like John.” While the Downs children had married and gone their separate ways, John’s illness brought them together once again. That pleased John very much in his final moments.
In addition to his wife and three sisters, John is survived by another sister, Claudia Flint of Newport Beach.
Private services were held and John’s ashes were scattered in the water off the rocks in front of the Hotel del Coronado – the place where he and Lila were married, and a stretch of beach that had brought John much joy.
The family asks that in lieu of flowers, donations be made in his name to San Diego Hospice, 4311 3rd Avenue, San Diego, 92103.
– This obituary was created by Joe Ditler and LivingObituary.com.