One Final Step...

by Colonel Steve Akley


This morning I awoke knowing that a four-month journey to create an awareness campaign to get Freddie Johnson into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame had come to a close. We combined a special issue of Bourbon Zeppelin with blog posts, a multi-pronged social media campaign, we recruited anyone who wanted to help... all to garner awareness about the contributions of Freddie Johnson, his father and grandfather to the world of bourbon.

We knew going in this is a long shot. No one in the Johnson family has ever been a company owner, a master distiller, a well known journalist or has been involved in the KDA. When you look through the roster of inductees, that's who you see. Freddie and family are unique in that they are simply people who have dedicated their lives to bourbon. We're talking careers spanning 40... 50 years in the business... but, as you dig into what they have contributed to bourbon, you realize there is, in fact, much more to their story than simply middle management employees with long careers in the industry. In fact, Freddie's father and grandfather have been involved in some of the most important bourbon moments of the 20th century. Be sure to read the special issue of Bourbon Zeppelin dedicated to their careers if you haven't done so already. I've put links to that and many of the other key pieces from the awareness campaign at the end of this blog post.

Throughout much of this process, I've been very open in that what inspires me to be involved in what we are doing is the fact that Freddie, his father and grandfather, bring a level of dignity and respect to bourbon, and life itself. In my own life, what they represent in terms of moral fiber, I've really only seen in my own father. When Freddie starts talking stories about his Dad and what he's meant to his life, I often can't help but reflect upon my Dad.

The funny thing is about all of this, I can't help but thinking my Dad had a little hand in the final moments of the campaign. I've said both publicly, and privately, I wanted to get 1,000 signatures on our Freddie petition. Now, I don't know where you stand on intervention in your life from loved ones you lost. In fact, if you asked me my own beliefs, I would tell you there are no ghosts, after life, contact from the beyond, etc. With that being said, though, I have to say the weird coincidences that happen are often unbelievable. When my Dad passed, things began to happen that perhaps a brain wrecked with grief trying to make sense of an incomprehensible loss seeks out to demonstrate to me that things are okay. Just random things that somewhere deep in the recesses of my mind it twists and says, "Here, this is from your Dad."

I don't know, though... maybe there is something there.

Like the moment we decided to bring his iPad to his memorial and simply play the songs he had downloaded from iTunes. We thought it would be a nice touch to have the music he enjoyed. I opened up his music and hit shuffle... the song that came on was from Bruce Springsteen. I didn't even know my Dad even liked Bruce Springsteen. He was more of a 50s rock 'n roll guy. I had anticipated hearing Elvis, Bill Haley and the Comets or the Coasters.

Instead, there was Bruce Springsteen singing, "Further Up the Road:"

Further on up the road
Further on up the road
Further on up the road
Further on up the road

One sunny mornin' we'll rise I know
And I'll meet you further on up the road
One sunny mornin' we'll rise I know
And I'll meet you further on up the road

There were over 1,000 songs in that iPad... and that one comes on. It was at that moment, I don't believe or disbelieve in this stuff... I simply take it for what it is and I simply say, "Thanks Dad."

There continued to be (and still are) these random things in our lives that seem to be messages from my Dad. One that really stands out came weeks after he passed away. My daughter Cat was having her banquet celebrating he field hockey season. These are things that should be fun and joyous, but at that time, feel a little more like peroxide in a wound. You can't help but think "who is not here?" the whole time when I know my Dad wouldn't have missed that event in million years.

It was my daughter Cat that really caused him to achieve emotions he hadn't even experienced with my sister and I. He was old school... a product of the 50s with the traditional roles found in American households at the time. He worked and my Mom stayed home. He was a policeman and supplemented his income by working secondary after his usual 5:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m. workday ended. He was involved as much as he could be... certainly working hard to be there for my sporting events and my sister's dance recitals, but, there was still a bit of a distance from someone who spent so many hours working.

When my daughter Cat was born... it all changed. She ruled the roost. He would take her everywhere allowing her to set the daily itinerary and even volunteered to pick her up from school when he retired. One moment that really stands out to me about their bond was one time when I was out of town for work. They had a father/daughter day with her Girl Scout troop. My Dad filled in for me in my absence. One of the activities that day was a dad's vs. daughters soccer game. 

Most of the Dads got the idea that you go through the motions, but you probably want to let a group of seven year-olds win the game. Well, everyone except for this one dad. He decided to go all out in an attempt to win the game for the dads. He was playing defense which meant he was back my Dad who was playing goalie since he was an out-of-shape 60-something year-old with bad knees and bad hips. Well, the "Super Dad" who was going all out really reared back and attempted to kick the ball down the field at one point. That ball he blasted ended up hitting Cat right in the face. She dropped to the ground crying.

My Dad... the retired sixty-something year old policeman couldn't stand for this. That was the wrong thing to do and he would get his revenge the next time the ball came back down the field towards the goal. One of the girls was on Super Dad's side when she kicked the ball to across the field to the other side of the goal. Rather than letting the other defender attempt to get the ball himself, Super Dad ran across the field after the ball. My Dad, who was in goal, also headed across the field where he met up with Super Dad in full-on sprint. An "accidental" leg right into the wheels of running Super Dad sent him sprawling to the ground, writhing in pain.

My Dad apologized as he was going for the ball... but smiled on the inside. He told me it wasn't his most proud moment... but, if he "could do it again... he would do it again."

You simply didn't mess with Cat.

So, while we are at this banquet and should have been celebrating the fun of my daughter's awards and accomplishments for the year, instead I was a bit "mopey." That was until I looked down below our seats. On the carpet... something we hadn't seen when were were seated, were five pennies. All heads-up. My Dad was a coin collector and it wasn't lost of me that perhaps it was him saying, "these five coins represent the five of us... I'm here." (me, my daughter Cat, my wife, Mom and my Dad).

As I went to bed last night with plans to send the Kentucky Distiller's Association our petition first thing in the morning, I did one final check of it and I saw it had 996 signatures. When I woke up this morning, I saw we had gotten exactly 4 more since I had gone to bed, meaning there were exactly 1,000 signatures on the petition. Not 999... not 1,001.

Exactly 1,000.

Of course, I realized I should have always said, I want to submit 1,000 signatures and not get 1,000 signatures... because I did have to remove duplicates, people who submitted the form without a name. The final count was 890 after the clean-up for the document.

I have to say, I'm pretty proud of the fact that we have 890 people, most of whom I don't know, who believe in what we are doing and want to contribute by adding their name to the petition.

I did take the final petition as well as all of the communication and send it off to the KDA this morning. 

I also sent it off to Freddie Johnson who responded by saying, "Steve, wonderful. I will always remember what you and the team have done. Thank you so much. Freddie."

That pretty much says it all, right?

Well, almost. We've done a lot and we're now in a state of waiting until the 2018 inductees are announced later this summer. No matter what happens, we have accomplished what we set out to do and that's raise awareness about the contributions of Freddie Johnson, his father and grandfather.

What's not lost in any of this is you. I want to thank everyone who has been a part of this. The stories of what Freddie has meant to so many of you have been inspirational. Like Freddie, I too am humbled and thankful for what all of you have done and contributed to this effort.

Also, thanks to my Dad.  


The Freddie & Family Awareness Campaign

Initial Blog Post -

Issue of Bourbon Zeppelin Dedicated to Freddie & Family -

The Blog Post Where I Talk About Meeting Freddie -

The Wrap-Up Blog Post -