By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
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By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
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Within ten years, Johnson held mortician's licenses in Texas and Louisiana, and a marriage license to his young love, Jackie, who helped him manage the funeral homes. When they broke up in 1970, the couple had a daughter and a son. They had adopted a boy soon after another infant child had died. He remarried in 1971 to a woman who now lives in Lufkin.
Johnson had a dark humor. His daughter recalled a car trip to Louisiana, when she talked of being uncomfortable driving across a long bridge. Why, Johnson told her, he could just throw her into the water -- and collect the insurance.
Sweeny Police Chief Jerry Murphy said Johnson established a reputation early as someone aloof from the local community and as a hard-nosed businessman. In the early 1970s a family called on him to bury their son, a Vietnam War casualty. Johnson did, but a dispute soon erupted over the price of funeral extras. He sued the family of the dead man and got nothing, except the animosity of many town residents.
But death became a growth business for Johnson.
By the late 1980s he had owned the Sweeny Funeral Home for two decades. And he bought the old Brazoria Methodist Church and turned it into a branch operation, the Brazoria Funeral Home. He had a tombstone business on Telephone Road in Houston and expanded with the opening of the Ad-Loff Funeral Home in Houston's Meyerland area. And he was setting up another mortuary in West Columbia.
Rather than tilling fertile new fields in the funeral business, however, Johnson would find he was digging himself into a financial and professional grave.
The funeral operator had perhaps his finest asset in the form of an outgoing associate and lover.
By all accounts, Edwina Prosen was a self-made woman when she started seeing Johnson socially 20 years ago.
Her father, a Swiss chef of some note, migrated to the New York City area and married her future mother, a first-generation American with Sicilian heritage. They provided Prosen with an upbringing accented by culture, fluency in French, a high school education and secretarial college.
She was a secretary in a New York City high-rise in the early 1950s when she met Sidney Prosen, a hard-charging record producer who worked in the same building. They married in May 1953 and started their suburban life in nearby Port of Chester.
Nine years and three boys later, the first harsh realities of life hit Prosen. The bottom fell out of a life for a woman not yet 30 years old. In mountains of legal documents compiled over the years, there is scant mention of separation or divorce -- she was forced to leave her husband "due to his refusal to support the family financially."
Edwina Prosen wasn't one to talk much about it. She and her children relocated to the two-bedroom upper unit of a modest duplex. Prosen worked as a secretary and teacher's assistant. Her boys hustled jobs and threw newspapers, helping in the family's survival.
"Everybody joined together," son Robert Prosen recalled. "You do what you have to do in those circumstances. You have to depend on each other. It brought us closer. We were so fortunate. We had a loving family."
Nostalgia aside, Prosen appeared to be a pioneering supermom. She played the piano until her youngest son fell asleep on her lap. She taught the older boys dances and devoted herself to the Boy Scouts. Prosen gained honors for her volunteer scouting work, while sons Philip and Robert both advanced to the rank of Eagle Scout.
The sons remember sharing evening meals; their mother insisted on it. But she took an active role in all their pursuits. Years later, when youngest son Jeff fired up his Harley hog, friends would see his motorcycle mama -- literally, his mother -- laughing in the wind as his passenger.
Philip enrolled in what was then East Texas State University, and he is now a photographer in Dallas. Robert shipped out to Texas Tech and went on to become a telephone company executive in the Dallas area. A close friend of Prosen's relocated from New York to a coastal enclave of Beaumont. To stay close to them all, Edwina Prosen came to Houston in 1975. She got jobs as an executive secretary at an oil company and as a hotel conference planner.
That's when Johnson entered her life.
"He convinced Mother that he was well-to-do and had multiple businesses, and then he convinced her to become part of them," Robert Prosen says. She was so taken with him and the industry that, at his urgings, she went through the required college courses to get her mortuary and funeral director licenses.
For a while Prosen and Johnson lived in his high-rise condo in the Sharpstown area. Then he introduced her to the new pleasures of pastoral semirural life in Sweeny, where BMWs and upscale developments were joining the traditional farms, ranches and refineries.
"When Edwina found out I had a place in the country, the [high-rise] became just a stopover on Friday, to go to Sweeny," Johnson said.