Settling a Score With a Bully, 50 Years Later

A 74-year old man in South Dakota, Carl Ericsson, had a beef from high school with a 73 year-old former classmate, Norman Johnson, so he went looking for him and shot him.

The article gives you the bare facts. I’ll fill in the spaces for you. What’s most interesting are the statements of his daughter, Beth Ribstein. She attributes the shooting to jealousy. Johnson went from being a high school athlete to a college athlete to a high school teacher and coach, and was well-liked and popular around town. But what’s to be jealous of? Being a high school teacher and coach is no great accomplishment, nor is being an athlete at a small high school and college.

Ribstein is probably a bully herself. Her children are probably  bullies. It’s an attitude, more than anything else, and it runs in families. Bullies don’t look like monsters to most people; they are popular because to most people, who they can’t get away with pushing around, they know that to get what they want they need to be friendly and smile. But it’s the treatment of weak people that shows what a person’s character is really like. Ribstein believes that because her father was popular he had the right to treat a weak person badly. She brushes it off as “goofing around” of course. Bullies don’t themselves regard it that way; they enjoy the power trip, and inflicting fear and humiliation. And they enjoy the fact that they can get away with it. When called on it, they never say, “Yeah, it was fun messing with the guy. How he trembled and got red in the face! What a loser! It was hilarious!” They always say it was “just a joke”, a “prank” or “goofing around” and it should not be taken seriously.

This was probably not the only time that Johnson harassed Ericsson. There was probably a pattern, and this was the only one he told anyone about. Johnson was probably kind of a ringleader; Ericsson probably got it from others as well. He was a “student manager” by which he probably thought he could get some respect by helping the jocks, but only put him close to them where they could mess with him.

Ericsson apparently had a functional life- he worked and got married. To what extent the depression and anxiety he suffered from came from his bullying experiences you can’t say. I suspect he came from a difficult family situation, was displaying fear, anxiety and depression as a child, and that triggered Johnson’s aggression. Maybe looking at the end of his life he wanted to settle what felt like unfinished business from long ago.

Anti-bullying programs are big these days, because a few years ago the gay lobby decided it was a problem. I’m pretty sure they don’t care about straight children being bullied, and I don’t think these programs amount to much.

Johnson was, and his family are I’m sure fundamentally pretty empty people. They suck up to people more powerful, are friendly to those with at the same level and abuse those weaker when they feel like it. I doubt Norman Johnson was anybody worth emulating or envying. Or, for that matter, shooting. Maybe the best thing to do would be to say to him, “You were an asshole in high school. You’re probably still an asshole. Lots of people think you’re cool, but I know who you really are. Have a nice life, dick, what’s left of it.”

It would be great if there was some way people could come together and talk about this stuff. What would Johnson have said if Ericsson had invited him to sit down? Maybe he would have said, “Yeah, I did some mean things back then. I’m sorry I hurt you.” More likely he would have said, “That was a long time ago. You couldn’t take a joke? Why do you still even remember that? You are just jealous because I am a well-liked pillar of the community. You really are a loser, you were a loser then and you are a loser now.” Bullies never take responsibility. Teachers and other adults never take responsibility.

I have had a number of Norman Johnsons in my life. I bear a lot of hatred. But as PTSD expert Aphrodite Matsakis said, “Living well is the best, and probably the only, revenge.” Enjoy what you can out of life, how and when you can.

4 Responses to Settling a Score With a Bully, 50 Years Later

  1. SFG says:

    While I’m well-familiar with the well-connected, grows-up-to-be-successful bullies you describe, a couple of things jump out at me:

    1. If you never leave your small town, being a high school teacher and coach might actually be a big deal. Shoot, even at real schools like Duke and Stanford coaches are bigshots.

    2. A lot of bullies are second-to-last on the totem pole and picking on the only person below them. It’s possible it’s as you describe, but it’s also possible this is just two guys in a small town who didn’t like each other.

  2. Stephen Wiblemo says:

    If you would like to talk to someone who knew Norm Johnson personally, I would be happy to fill in your blanks. If you would like to read a story from someone who actually talked to people who knew both men – Johnson and Ericsson – you can read this article written by John Glionna of the LA Times. It is excellent.

    • I take it you’re Johnson’s son-in-law. I’m guessing you’re one of the many who saw him as a good person without any bad aspects. The article provides more information about Ericsson than the earlier ones, with regard to his anger, lack of connection with others and strange behavior, but none of this stuff is at all surprising. I would be interested in hearing what you have to say though.

  3. ollol ooper says:

    “I have had a number of Norman Johnsons in my life. I bear a lot of hatred. But as PTSD expert Aphrodite Matsakis said, “Living well is the best, and probably the only, revenge.” Enjoy what you can out of life, how and when you can.”

    There is more than that, to this issue.

    “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”

    Thousand years prior to fMRI machines and deep books on the illusion of free will by philosophers, that wise guy already was aware of it.

    That awareness if a profound form of knowledge.

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