UC Berkeley sophomore Cody Johnson, who died on Thanksgiving, was known for his genuine smile. He was 20 years old.
Despite coming from a difficult background, Johnson soared above challenges and devoted himself to learning. He had a range of talents, with interests including video games and Japanese culture. He loved to act, play guitar, dance and write poetry.
“He was special talent — a really brilliant young man, especially in the humanities,” said former high school teacher Terry Henderson, who added that Johnson was not just a student but a friend. “When we were together in class, it was teacher-to-student. But when you’re talking about literature and ideas, you become equals.”
Johnson emancipated himself when he was a junior at University Senior High School in Los Angeles and, as a foster care youth, lived with faculty members he had grown close to before moving to Berkeley. After overcoming family issues and personal struggles, he graduated at the top of his class and spoke at his high school graduation.
On Thanksgiving morning, Johnson could not be woken up by his roommate and housemates, who then alerted authorities. The Alameda County Coroner’s Bureau said it is waiting for toxicology results from the labs before announcing the cause of death, a process that could take two months.
He hoped to become an English teacher and was always reading, Henderson said.
Another of his passions was Japanese art and music. Johnson shared his passion by preparing Japanese food for housemates at his co-op, Stebbins Hall.
Johnson is remembered most fondly for his act in a talent show last month, where he lip-synced and danced to one of his favorite Japanese songs, shedding his shyness for the night.
“You could see the music video playing on the computer screen in the corner, and he had the dance routine down perfectly,” said Torey Kocsik, Stebbins’ house manager and a UC Berkeley senior. “He was grinning the entire time.”
Fellow housemate and UC Berkeley junior Rigoberto Chavez, who remembered the routine as his favorite memory of his close friend, said Johnson’s “reassuring smile” was infectious.
“Independent of whatever personal problems he was encountering, he never projected any negative emotions and always maintained his composure — something I truly admire,” Chavez said.
Berkeley Student Cooperative President and UC Berkeley senior Brenna Fallon said members of Stebbins will determine the most appropriate way to remember Johnson and notify the co-op community if there is a memorial service.
“Johnson was one of the most genuinely sweet people I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know,” Kocsik said. “I got to watch him break out of his shell and become a part of our family.”
Contact Virgie Hoban at [email protected].