Of all the Veterans Days 89-year-old Korean War veteran and former Senator Maurice Johannessen has commemorated, today’s may be among his most bittersweet.
On this Veterans Day, the Veterans Cemetery Memorial Chapel in Igo — the one made possible by Johannessen and his wife Marianne more than 12 years ago — is as it was when it was proudly dedicated on March 19, 2011.
As simple as that may sound, an open, welcoming, undemolished Veterans Memorial Building is not something Johannessen takes for granted; not after what he’s experienced in the last year and a half, something he describes as “pure, living hell”.
The Veterans Memorial Chapel has often been described as a labor of love for the Johannessens.
Hundreds of professionals, individuals, organizations, tradespeople, and businesses contributed time, money, resources, labor and materials to turn Johannessen’s dream of a Veterans Memorial Building a reality.
Designed by Redding architect Terry Topolski, the chapel featured spacious wood-trussed vaulted ceilings.
On the day of the Veterans Memorial Building dedication in 2011, part of the ceremony included a Missing in America Project Memorial Service for 25 veterans whose urns had never been claimed, including some that had languished in mortuaries for years.
And in recognition of the chapel’s non-denominational design — Johannessen prefers the word ‘benches’ to ‘pews’ — an aesthetic inclusive to all veterans, their families and different beliefs, an interfaith group and Wintu Nation representatives also participated in the service.
Video by Alan Ernesto Phillips for A News Cafe.
Since early 2022, Johannessen has fought as hard as he’s ever fought for anything in his life to learn why the Veterans Memorial Chapel was abruptly closed, gutted and turned into a construction zone.
Johannessen fought to understand why a CalFire California State Fire Marshal named Keith Hard ordered the memorial building suddenly shuttered and gutted more than 11 years after construction was completed; after the California Department of Veterans Affairs approved the building.
Johannessen fought to comprehend why the state fire marshal claimed that the cemetery had inadequate water pressure that required a completely new sprinkler system, when in 2011 the 65 psi (pound per square inch) was considered acceptable and up to code.
Johannessen fought to move things along and get the memorial building open as quickly as possible. Each day that it was closed was another day families were prevented from holding memorial services there. But the days, weeks, months, and finally, more than a year dragged on without answers.
Johannessen fought to learn — ultimately, without success — the location of the building’s interior components that were removed, such as custom-made wood benches and furnishings specially commissioned and built by inmates with the State of California Prison Industry Authority.
Johannessen fought to keep his cool. He methodically tapped every resource and contact he’d collected in all his years as a county supervisor, senator, California Parks and Recreation Commissioner, and perhaps most seemingly influential of all, his time as Secretary of the California Department of Veterans Affairs, appointed by then-Governor Gray Davis.
Maurice Johannessen, veteran and philanthropist
It was during Johannessen’s time as a senator that he authored a bill that secured $7.5 million dollars to create the Northern California Veterans Cemetery in Igo, which was donated to the State of California.
On Veterans Day of 2021, Assemblywoman Megan Dahle and her husband Senator Brian Dahle honored Johannessen at a special recognition event.
“His work on behalf of California veterans is unparalleled, and his determination to deliver for his district while serving in the Legislature sets a very high standard,” Brian Dahle said. “His legacy and leadership are commendable,”
Johannessen, born in Norway, says he gives so much because he’s so grateful to America for providing opportunities for him to work hard and succeed that he’s expressed his gratitude. Over his lifetime he and his wife have contributed millions of dollars to countless nonprofits and causes they believed would help society in general and their community specifically.
The short list of Johannessen recipients includes: The Redding Library, Foothill High School, Redding’s trail system, Shasta County Fairgrounds renovation, Weaverville Performing Arts Center, Cascade Theatre, Igo-Ono Elementary School, Civil Air Patrol Cadets, Redding Sports Complex, Turtle Bay Exploration Park, Shasta County Superior Courts Addicted Offender Program, RPD Canine Unit, North State Cancer League, Shingletown Volunteer Fire Department, Klamath County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue, the Salvation Army, Empire Recovery Center, Redding Rotary, Shasta Historical Society, Operation Blue Santa, animal rescue, and many others.
But as a veteran, Johannessen has a heart for causes that help veterans. Consequently, as a senator, Johannessen authored legislation to build five California veterans homes, including one in Redding. He contributed $1 million dollars to begin the land purchase and permit processes for the construction of the Veterans Clinic on Knighton Road, and initiated efforts to secure a new veterans clinic site in Redding.
Perhaps it was because Johannessen has invested so much in veterans’ causes that it bothered him so much to see the Memorial Chapel closed; a place he and others had worked so hard and for so long to create as the cemetery’s crown jewel.
Johannessen admits a more personal reason for wanting the Memorial Chapel reopened quickly.
“I can’t die until that place is fixed, because I want my services there,” he said with a smile. “Don’t worry. I don’t plan on going anywhere soon, but I want to be ready.”
Johannessen fought to not lose hope after someone confided that the state fire marshal was so intimidating, and had so much power that he was like “a god” – and nobody would go up against him.
Johannessen’s letters sent to the fire marshal’s office were returned, marked “undeliverable”. His calls to the state fire marshal were ignored.
Meanwhile, Johannessen was receiving phone calls from one distraught widow after another, women literally crying, because rather than honor their deceased husbands with memorial services inside the beautiful memorial building, they were forced to hold services outdoors in freezing winters and blistering summers.
In one of his last acts of desperation, Johannessen wrote a two-page, nine-paragraph, single-spaced letter to the Office of the Governor’s Executive Secretary Dana Williamson. He asked for Williamson’s help, explained the situation, and told how he felt about what had happened:
“This was a complete shock to myself and everyone in the veteran community that such a needed and treasured resource would not be available for Military Honors at a veteran’s funeral service,” he wrote.
He continued: “The need for such an enclosed structure is glaringly apparent to anyone attending funeral services for veterans at that cemetery. You can witness elderly family members trying to shelter in freezing cold, winds and rain and during the summer heat, almost becoming overcome in the 100-degree plus temperatures that are quite normal here. The Veterans Memorial Building provides much needed shelter and respite for grieving families who are now being denied such a small comfort during their time of grief. Since 2011, until its unnecessary closure last year, many thousands of veterans have received full Military Honors using the protection of the Memorial Building before internment at a cemetery in which over 9,000 veterans are currently interred.”
Johannessen was at his wit’s end.
Video by Alan Ernesto Phillips for A News Cafe.
As Johannessen continued to fight for answers, he also fought to comprehend why the cemetery staff treated him like a trespasser and criminal. They took away his key and changed the locks. They ordered him off the property when he returned week after week — partly to to honor his brother at the cemetery, whose memorial service was the first held inside the memorial building — but also to demand answers.
Cemetery staff even threatened to call security if Johannesen didn’t quit “bothering” them with questions and demands.
On Oct. 18, this reporter and a videographer joined Johannessen at the Veterans Cemetery where he showed the building, and pointed out special details, such as a stained glass feature at the front of the building, where light could filter through and display colorful rays upon the floor. Although the building’s doors were locked, the windows afforded a view of the chapel’s interior. The construction was obviously finished. The ceiling was intact, and the benches and all other furnishings had been returned.
The Veterans Memorial Chapel appeared ready for services.
As Johannesen talked about the Memorial Chapel, a man dressed in khaki clothes who identified himself as a cemetery groundskeeper told Johannesen that filming and photography were not allowed without 10 days’ prior permission.
A furious Johannessen stuck his chin out and bellowed with words that still contain a trace of a Norwegian accent, “Do you know who I am? I’m Senator Maurice Johannessen, and I built this damn place!”
As a seemingly unimpressed groundskeeper returned to the main building, an incensed Johannessen turned and said, “Jackass! I wish he’d have tried to arrest me!”
Moments later, a chorus of sprinklers simultaneously leapt from the grass, only in the area where we stood near the memorial building. Long arcs of water sprayed the sidewalk where we stood, blocking the path to our vehicles parked adjacent to the memorial building.
“They’re treating us like they do homeless in the parks,” said an exasperated Johannessen.
Video by Alan Ernesto Phillips for A News Cafe.
Searching for answers
A News Cafe phoned CalFire Office of the State Fire Marshal, and emailed questions, including:
- Why was the chapel ordered closed by CalFire for more than a year and a half for repairs since the chapel was fully permitted when built and dedicated?
- Why did CalFire allow the chapel to be in full operation for 11 years before closing it for more than a year and a half for work that appeared unnecessary?
- How much did the construction cost, who did the work and who paid for it?
- What triggered CalFire’s decision to close the chapel in the spring of 2022 for “repairs”?
- Why was former Senator Maurince Johannessen treated with such disrespect and unprofessionalism by Keith Hard? Calls unreturned. Letters returned as undeliverable.
CalFire’s Office of the State Fire Marshal did not respond or answer any questions.
A News Cafe contacted Shasta County Department of Resource Management regarding the Veterans Cemetery Memorial Building’s permit history. Here is an excerpt of the reply from Adam Fieseler, Assistant Director, Department of Resource Management:
“Shasta County Building reviewed and approved the plans for construction, and inspected the chapel. Fire sprinklers were noted as required on the building permit records and plans.
Fire sprinklers are a separate review and approval by the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ), which based on our records and the attached email from the Fire Marshall at the time, Don Gordon, was the Insurance Services Office (ISO) and State Fire Marshal.
During our last inspection of the chapel in 2012, two items were remaining prior to final or issuance of the certificate of occupancy. One item was occupancy sensors, the other was an approved inspection for the fire sprinkler systems. The building inspector who performed the last inspection in 2012, vaguely remembers the sprinklers being residential and not commercial thus not passing.
Fire sprinklers plans have been submitted by Christine Odson, of the Northern California Veterans Cemetery to our office that indicate approval from Keith Hard on 11/14/2022.
The submittal was solely to demonstrate progress towards compliance with fire sprinkler requirements. The state fire marshal should perform the inspection not Shasta County Fire.”
Later, A News Cafe received good news from the county’s Resources Management Department.
“Hot off the press! According to staff, the chapel has now passed the State Fire Marshal inspection (see attached approvals) and Resource Management will issue a Certificate of Occupancy for the Chapel.
A News Cafe contacted the California Department of Veterans Affairs for comment about the situation at the Veterans Cemetery Memorial Building’s closure for the last year and a half, and received a response from Deputy Secretary of Communications, Thora Chaves:
“We are happy to report that the Memorial Building at the Northern California Veterans Cemetery is now open and families have been holding services onsite since last week. Our Cemetery is a place of reverence and respect, a final resting place for veterans who have served in the United States Armed Forces. The cemetery stands as a symbol of Shasta counties commitment to honoring and remembering the sacrifices of veterans who have served their country.
Thank you for your inquiry,
A News Cafe’s follow-up email to Thora Chaves said we were aware of the good news about the Veterans Memorial Building being opened, but we were still seeking comment about the disrespectful way in which the former senator was treated as he sought information about the chapel’s closure.
Chaves responded: “This is all we have to share at this time.”
Son of Johannesen, the lawyer
At some point, Johannessen reached out for help from his son, Mark Johannessen, an Aptos attorney. In a letter attorney Johannessen wrote to the California Department of Veterans Affairs, the younger Johannessen disputed CalFire’s claim that the Veterans Memorial Building’s construction was unpermitted.
“As you recall, CalFire inspector Keith Hard in his inspection report #118288 dated 3/7/2022 stated: 3. Previous non-permitted “Chapel” building construction and compliance with required codes”.
This is incorrect and needs to be addressed as all construction of the chapel was fully permitted and inspected by local authorities. On November 29, 2022, I sent a letter to Christine Odson at the facility following up on documents provided which show the facility as constructed, was fully permitted.”
He continues: The issue of concern is that CalFire’s inspection reports are a matter of public record. Those public records state that the construction of the chapel was somehow deficient and ‘unpermitted’ which is false. That statement in effect defames the Senator and scores of local businesses and individuals who contributed to the construction of the chapel, and also damages the Senator’s reputation. This needs to be fixed.
An appropriate fix would be to amend those inspection reports which incorrectly state that the construction was not permitted to reflect to some other language such as something to the effect that the upgrades are a result of subsequent regulatory regulation or other construction changes, if that is the case.
If not, then an apology from Mr. Hard would be in order.”
Keith Hard did not apologize to Johannesen.
However, Hard may no longer be in a position to apologize, or do anything related to his former state fire marshal duties. On Oct. 6 Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed Daniel Berlant as CalFire’s new State Fire Marshal.
Informed that Gov. Gavin Newsom had replaced Keith Hard with a new Fire Marshal, Johannessen said, “Well, isn’t that something? What do you know.”
In less stressful times for Johannessen, back in 2011 when the Veterans Memorial Chapel was brand new and its future looked bright and uncomplicated, Johannesen was quoted in a news story in which he spoke about the finished memorial project.
“The chapel turned out more beautiful than I even imagined it,” he said. “I am very grateful for the support of so many in the North State to help us build this much-needed facility.”
The great unknowns
As good as the news is that the Veterans Memorial Chapel is open again, many questions remain unanswered.
Why did former State Fire Marshal Keith Hard wait 11 years before he ordered the chapel’s interior gutted in a job that Johannessen surmised cost many millions of dollars?
What was former State Fire Marshal Keith Hard’s problem? Did he have a personal beef with Johannessen? Was it, as Johannessen guessed, some kind of a power struggle from a person drunk on power out to prove he had all the control?
What kind of cemetery employees would think it’s acceptable to treat with such profound disrespect not just any elderly man, but an 89-year-old former senator who made the cemetery and memorial chapel’s existence possible?
Did Johannessen’s letter to the Governor’s office have anything to do with Newsom’s appointment of a new state fire marshal last month?
We may never know.
Today, there are no warning signs taped to the Veterans Memorial Chapel door forbidding entrance. The vaulted ceiling isn’t gutted. The solid wood benches built by a state inmate carpentry crew are no longer missing.
Today, if Retired Senator Maurice Johannessen arrives at the cemetery and stands in front of the Veterans Memorial Chapel to honor his brother and all the veterans who sacrificed so much for their country, no grounds person will order the elderly former senator off the premises. No staff person will show up to tell Johannessen and his media companions that photos are prohibited, and then proceed to snap pictures of the trio’s vehicles license numbers.
Most of all, today, if Johannessen stands on the sidewalk outside the chapel, no sprinklers will be weaponized to remove him from the property.
Today is Veterans Day, a day of recognition for all veterans. It’s a sweet day for Johannessen, but it’s been a long bitter battle to fight the good fight to ensure the Veterans Memorial Chapel is open for services.
One day, Johannessen’s memorial service will be held there.
Not today. Today is Veterans Day. Today Johannessen is a veteran just eight months shy of his 90th birthday. He’s a stark reminder that some things are worth fighting for, no matter our age, or how hard the battle.
Special Veterans Day recognition to Johannessen, and all the veterans who’ve sacrificed so much. Thank you for your service.