The story of Johnny Krieger and the community that loved him

John Krieger 1935 -2003

By Vivian Sade

Originally published December. 31, 2003

CHURUBUSCO, Ind. — John A. Krieger, the man who was known as Churubusco’s “favorite son” and the town’s All-Round Nice Guy” died just after midnight on Christmas Eve at the age of 68.

John, who was born with Down syndrome, had been sick with pneumonia and other infections and was hospitalized for four weeks preceding his death.

He kept up his busy schedule, working for a variety of downtown merchants and patrolling the streets of Churubusco right up until the day he was admitted to the hospital.

Krieger’s parents, the late Cloyd “Pete” and Hazel Krieger, were advised by medical authorities  to put their Down syndrome baby in an institution.

“He will never live to see his twentieth birthday,” they told the Kriegers.

Baby John

Appalled at the thought of institutionalizing their little boy, Pete and Hazel took him home and raised him alongside his loving brother and sisters, Calvin, Leila, Phyllis and Beverly.

Although John’s speech was garbled and hard to understand, and he had the usual setbacks associated with Down syndrome, he thrived in the Krieger family setting where he was surrounded with love and attention.

John created a fantasy world where he was able to retreat and become whatever he wanted to be at the moment — a police officer, a medic, a preacher or a fireman.

Many people in Churubusco grew up watching John pantomime a one-man play at the edge of a street or on a downtown sidewalk as he played cops and robbers, assisted at the scene of a wreck or chased down an imaginary hit and run driver.

Krieger brought recognition to Churubusco and gave the town more than its 15 minutes of fame when he attracted the attention of the national media several years ago. He was the focus of a 1999 Associated Press feature story and later that same year, the worldwide cable news network CNN visited Churubusco and filmed a segment about John Krieger for the Sunday morning “Across America” series.

At CNN headquarters in Atlanta, Ga., the “Johnny” feature became an audience favorite and continued to be a repeat request from CNN viewers.

John enjoyed working at Shroyer’s Variety & Hardware store on Main Street.
Used with permission of Associated Press

After the Associated Press and CNN coverage, Krieger and the Town of Churubusco heard from people around the world. Many of them sent John letters, cards and even money.

In April 2000 town council members voted unanimously to declare April 23 — John’s birthday — as John Krieger Day in Churubusco.

Dr. Janet McMullen, associate professor of radio, television and film at the University of North Alabama, still uses the story of Krieger when teaching the sociology theories of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft.

“Those two theories contrast societies which value people based on who they are versus what they can do,” McMullen said. “John and Churubusco have been the perfect illustrations of that.”

When John was a young man he caught the attention of local businessman,

Clarence Raypole, who owned a gas station at the corner of Main and Whitley streets. Raypole offered John a job and soon the short, stocky young man with the infectious grin became a familiar sight in downtown Churubusco.

John on patrol in the 1970s.

John liked nothing more than to be “one of the guys” and could be seen in the garage, helping work on a car and joking with the mechanics or inside, taking a break and drinking a cola while trading “girlfriend” stories with the young men who worked and hung out at the station.

It was Raypole who affectionately dubbed John, “Knothead.”

The entire business community, following Raypole’s lead, adopted John Krieger and he worked a variety of jobs, many times concurrently, throughout his lifetime.

Besides Raypole’s, John also worked at Floyd’s Auto Sales, Super Valu, Diffendarfer’s Body Shop, Shroyers Variety and Hardware, Jones Insurance, Churubusco News, Papa’s Place and Sheets and Childs Funeral Home.

He was a bonafide member of the Churubusco Fire Department, Whitley County Medic 21, Churubusco Police Department and the Whitley County Sheriff’s Department.

When he was younger, John rode a bicycle which was usually gifted to him by local merchants or the police department. The bike was outfitted with baskets, a toy radio and lights. He carried a badge with all the proper credentials for each department he worked for and, depending on which scenario he was acting out at the time, would present the correct badge with the utmost authority. The local police, fire department and emergency crews supplied John with a space or a desk at their headquarters and even outfitted him with police, medic and firefighter uniforms.

John enjoyed daily coffee breaks with his police officer buddies. He is shown at the Ramble Inn with Chad Fulkerson, center, and Tony Helfrich. This photo was taken by Associated Press when a news crew came to Churubusco from New York to write a story about John.
Used with permission of Associated Press

The year before John died, Sheriff Mike Schrader of the Whitley County Sheriff’s Department, in cooperation with the Churubusco Police Department, gave John a complete sheriff’s uniform — everything but a gun.

Once a week, an excited John would announce to his many coworkers and employers that he was going to be working as a “flatfoot” and would then name the specific day.

John takes notes at the scene of a crime. Many business people indulged John’s fantasies of being a police officer. In this case, staff members at Jones Insurance Agency staged a mock crime scene, including a taped outline of where the alleged murder victim was found.

On “flatfoot” days, John would proudly walk the streets of Churubusco in his new uniform, patrolling the streets and fighting crime at every corner.

His fascination with the police was instilled in him as a young boy, when he watched his father get dressed in his “blues” and go to work as a flatfoot or policeman.

In his heyday, when he rode his bicycle, John could imitate a perfect, very authentic-sounding siren. People, upon hearing it, would automatically pull to the edge of the road.

John startled more than one stranger who was passing through town. He would walk up to the offender’s car window and begin writing an imaginary ticket, all the while scolding the hapless motorist for being so careless and running a red light, or leaving the scene of an accident or whatever infraction John thought had been committed.

Once in a while John could be seen standing downtown, arguing with someone he had just ticketed for jaywalking or illegal parking.

The strangers always wore the same confused and exasperated expression while residents of Churubusco just smiled and sometimes reached out and patted John on the back, telling him, “good job.”

The local Methodist Church, where John attended and served as altar boy for many years, sometimes allowed John to preach between services.

He would climb the steps to the pulpit and deliver a rousing — if unintelligible — sermon punctuated with a clear “God” and “Jesus” here and there.

“John was passionate in his sermons,” said Christine Newman-Jacobs, UMC pastor. “And he was passionate in life. Everything he did, he did with love and passion.”

In 1978, Churubusco Police officer Clifford Smith began taking John with him and other officers to a local restaurant for an afternoon coffee break. The ritual continued for nearly 25 years.

Every year, on April 23, or John’s “big day” as he liked to call it, friends, family and members of the local and county police department would gather at the restaurant at precisely 2 p.m. and celebrate John’s birthday with cake and presents.  After John’s parents and brother died, he went to live with his sister, Phyllis, where he remained for many years.  Several years ago, when Phyllis died, the local newspaper office was flooded with calls from people wondering, “What will happen to Johnny?”

But Phyllis had voiced her dying wish to her son, Dan Ferguson; she asked him to take care of John.  Ferguson kept his bedside promise and John lived with Dan and his wife, also named Phyllis, on the east side of Churubusco, until his death.

John, age 2

Dan’s children — John’s great nieces and nephews — and their children, as well as his only remaining sibling, Bev Davis, were a constant source of pride to John. He always carried pictures of the newest baby in the family and would proudly show them to anyone he met on the street.

One picture that Associated Press featured showed John cuddling a great-great nephew with a look of pure adoration.  As he got older, his joints, especially his knees, grew weaker, although by most standards, John was in very good shape for a 68-year-old man who was not expected to live past 20.

It was hard to keep him from making his appointed rounds, even when he was ill. Dan and Phyllis, in an effort to keep John home in his sick bed while they went to work, would sometimes confiscate John’s shoes and take them to their place of employment.

That usually didn’t work, as Dan reported later. “John would just find an old pair of shoes or boots, even if they didn’t fit, and walk uptown anyway.”

The summer after his death was the first time in decades that John did not lead the annual Turtle Days parade, smiling and waving at the crowd while sitting in the front seat of a fire truck or a police squad car.

His funeral, held Sunday, Dec. 28, 2003, was something John — who never minded being the center of attention — would have approved of. Family members, friends, local businessmen and women, co-workers and representatives of the fire department, Medic 21 and local, county and state police departments lined the pews, filling the church to capacity.

A young John

After the eulogy — which featured gospel singing, one of John’s passions — friends and family members told “Johnny” stories, prompting both tears and laughter.

The funeral procession — a long motorcade led by over three dozen police, fire and medical vehicles — drew the attention of bystanders and motorists along the way. One group of employees in front of Brevin’s Restaurant stood silently, hats off and heads bowed in respect as the procession passed.  Thanks to the caring and loving hands of funeral home personnel — who were also one of John’s many employers —

Busco’s All Round Nice Guy reclined peacefully in his favorite suit, holding a wallet which

was open to show his official police and firefighter badges. Even in death, his face reflected a smile and his resolute love of life.

Nearby stood a large wreath which encircled a photo of the firefighters, officers and medics who had come to think of John as one of their own.

John spent a great deal of time on “paperwork” for his many professions, sometimes

working at home, sometimes working in one of his many offices in downtown Churubusco.  He would often spend hours laboriously printing his name beneath a handdrawn cross.

He would proudly show off his handiwork and declare, “John Krieger – flatfoot, preacher and man of God.” Those who knew him soon realized that John Krieger was not only a man of God, but a gift from God.

And now, Johnny’s home.

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