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District 18 Sen. Bernie Hunhoff (D-Yankton), left, visits with former U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) at Saturday’s Meridian En Blanc fundraiser for the Yankton Area Arts Association. Johnson, a Vermillion native, and his wife, Barb, are moving from Washington, D.C., to South Dakota for family reasons. The Johnsons both graduated from the University of South Dakota in Vermillion.

Tim Johnson retired from the U.S. Senate in 2014, but the Vermillion native and his wife, Barb, still found themselves surrounded Saturday night by well-wishers.

The Johnsons were attending the Meridian En Blanc dinner, held on the Meridian Bridge at Yankton. The gala of dining, music and art raises funds for the Yankton Area Arts Association (YAAA). The Johnsons were guests of his brother and sister-in-law, Tom and Brenda Johnson of Yankton.

The Johnsons arrived without fanfare, but they soon drew a crowd.

"Tim knows half the state and has a lot of friends," Barb said with a laugh.

For Tim and Barb Johnson, the evening was more than a social outing. They found many people welcoming home the couple, who are moving from Washington, D.C., back to South Dakota.

"We stayed in Washington (after Tim’s retirement)," Barb said. "We spent the last two years traveling back and forth, but now we’ve sold our home in Washington and are closing on (a residence) in Sioux Falls."

Both Tim and Barb are University of South Dakota graduates. Tim worked as an attorney who served 36 years in public office. He holds the distinction of never losing an election — particularly noteworthy as a Democrat in a Republican state.

"I served eight years in the (South Dakota) Legislature, 10 years in the (U.S.) House and 18 years in the (U.S.) Senate," he said, flashing a grin. "It was fun. I enjoyed being in office and helping people."

But along the way, the Johnsons survived not only some grueling campaigns but also serious health issues. Tim survived a brain aneurysm that nearly claimed his life and also prostate cancer. Barb has survived breast cancer twice.

However, they both showed an ease in Saturday night’s relaxing atmosphere and beautiful evening. Tim still uses a small motor scooter to get around. However, he has shown marked improvement in his speech and appearance compared to two years ago.

While the Johnsons have spent much of their marriage in Washington, they still consider South Dakota their home. On Saturday night, they shared that feeling with old friends.

"I really enjoy Yankton, and I really enjoy this part of South Dakota," Tim said.

Barb agreed, noting the region brings many good memories.

"It’s good to back in Yankton, and we enjoy Vermillion, where we spent a lot of years," she said. "It’s nice to be in South Dakota, and we’re familiar with it."

The Johnsons point to a major reason for returning to South Dakota: grandchildren. The Johnsons have three children and six grandchildren. Son Brendan and family live in Sioux Falls, son Brooks and family live in Boston, and daughter Kelsey lives in Washington, D.C.

"We have six grandchildren, and that’s something great," Tim said.

"Making our home in Sioux Falls means we will be much closer to our grandkids, and that’s the biggest thing," Barb said. "We also stay in contact with Brooks and Kelsey."

The Johnsons noted they aren’t part of the Beltway political scene since Tim retired. They do stay in touch with former staff members and three former senators: Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and his wife, Linda, and Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad (both D-N.D.).

With their return to South Dakota, the Johnsons say they look forward to following USD events.

"I have a lot of great memories about USD," Tim said. "We’ve seen pictures of the new fieldhouse in the paper. We’re anxious to see the soccer field and track along with the basketball arena."

Tom Johnson, a pathologist at Avera Sacred Heart Hospital in Yankton, said he looks forward to seeing his brother and sister-in-law more often now that they live only about an hour away.

"We invited them down here (for Meridian En Blanc), and they have a chance to see some people they know," Tom said.

John Sternquist of Yankton was one of those friends visiting with the Johnsons at Saturday’s gala.

"Tim and I attended the University of South Dakota together, and we were both members of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity. Tim was the Big Man On Campus, but he didn’t act like it," Sternquist said. "Tim was a wonderful guy back then, the same as he is now. He’s a local boy and a quality person."

The Johnsons were among more than 200 people who dined at tables on the decorated lower deck of the Meridian Bridge. The attendees listened to music by the Bridge City Big Band. In addition, they viewed works by artists Steve Goad and Peter Deming of Yankton and Sharon Gray of Vermillion. The three artists created works during the gala.

YAAA executive director Julie Amsberry and YAAA president Sarah Mannes Homstad addressed the crowd and presented the Arts Advocate of the Year award to Rita Wentworth. She received Gray’s watercolor painting created that evening.

"We’re a state that works and works, and the arts got shoved aside for a long time," state Sen. Bernie Hunhoff said. "That’s not healthy in terms of culturally, but I think we’re starting to catch up.

"We have a really great fine arts community. This event shows the citizens support it."

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