By Madoline Markham
On the last Thursday of April you’ll find quite the party at the Birmingham Zoo. Kids (and adults) taking advantage of unlimited access to the petting zoo and riding the carousel for hours at a time. Old friends catching up over a beer. Children dancing with their grandparents. Girls squealing at exotic animals.
All festivities at the annual Bo Johnson Memorial Zoo Party, affectionately known as “BoBo Fest,” are in keeping with the memory of lifelong Mountain Brook resident and avid golfer Bo Johnson, who passed away from esophageal cancer in 2006.
“Bo loved to have a good time, loved Alabama football and loved his friends,” said Lauren Crow, a friend of Johnson’s since high school.
The only thing missing from the party is the football.
Although he had no children of his own, Johnson wasn’t just friends with adults. “Bo knew all the kids in Crestline and would go to their basketball games,” said Arlen Carpenter, Johnson’s best friend.
Those kids come to the party, along with parents, grandparents, and anyone who wants to have a good time. There’s dinner from Full Moon Bar-B-Que, as well as beer and wine. Jimmy and Laine, lifelong friends of Johnson, play acoustic rock. Johnson would go to hear them wherever they played around Birmingham in the mid to late 1980s.
“It’s the kind of party where people can come by after soccer practice and eat burgers and ride the carousel,” Crow said. The festivities also raise funds and awareness for esophageal cancer. Johnson was diagnosed with the disease in September 2005 and passed away just three months later at age 45. On his birthday of that first year, May 9, 2006, his friends and family pulled together what would become the First Annual Bo Johnson Memorial Golf Tournament in his memory.
Although he grew to love golf, Johnson didn’t develop his interest in the game as a kid. “He just wanted to fish and catch snakes,” said his father, Sam Johnson. Johnson started playing in his mid-20s and got hooked. He was a member at Old Overton and then at Birmingham Country Club.
The festivities the first year of the golf tournament included a party the night before at Margaret Camp’s house. This year there will not be a golf tournament or silent auction like in the past, but the foundation hopes to hire an event planner and bring them back next year.
The Bo Johnson Charitable Foundation board hopes to fund research to help decrease diagnoses and the high mortality rate for esophageal cancer. In 2010 the National Cancer Institute estimated there were 16,640 new cases of esophageal cancer and 14,500 deaths in the United States. The foundation has raised more than $250,000 for esophageal cancer research from the golf tournament and party over the past five years. Last year they established a $50,000 grant for esophageal cancer research at the Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB. The foundation plans to continue to give toward local research. They also have contributed to the American Cancer Society in the past.
Johnson’s friends and family also hope to raise awareness of esophageal cancer and encourage people to see a doctor about subtle symptoms such as heartburn and sore throats. Johnson complained about a sore throat hurting for at least six weeks before he saw a doctor. Early esophageal cancer may not cause symptoms, but symptoms include pain when swallowing, chest or back pain, weight loss, heartburn, chronic cough or hoarse voice.
Johnson’s legacy lives on in the fight against esophageal cancer, but it is his fun-loving spirit that those who knew him speak about most enthusiastically.You can find Bo’s Nachos on the menu at Otey’s Tavern in Crestline. You can hear stories from his friends about how his arguing and debating drove them crazy but how his loyal friendship trumped all. You can catch his enthusiasm for the game of golf on Birmingham courses. And you can find his spirit more than alive at the zoo on April 28.
Bo’s family and friends have all shared the work of planning the events and a few have taken turns as head party planner. Johnson’s cousin Isabelle Silko ran it one year. Margaret Camp did it other years. Lauren Crow helps with publicity and gathering items for the silent auction. Arlen Carpenter’s company, Stickland Paper, handles paper products. Many Mountain Brook businesses have sponsored the event. Other family and friends on the Bo Johnson Memorial Foundation Board and Committee are Sam Johnson, Cal Bailey, Elizabeth Jernigan, Tom Jernigan, Larry Moore, Chris Silko, Catherine Pittman Smith and Callen Sparrow.
The Sixth Annual Bo Johnson Memorial Zoo Party will be held Thursday, April 28, 5-9 p.m. at the Birmingham Children’s Zoo. To purchase tickets, make a check payable to: The Bo Johnson Charitable Foundation, 3219 Karl Daly Rd., Birmingham, Ala. 35201. Tickets are $35 in advance or $40 at the door; children 17 and under are free. Tickets donations are tax deductable.