For ' St. Jude DJ,' what happens in Vegas can be felt in Memphis

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LAS VEGAS, Nevada — People come to this place with dreams of striking it rich, and so it was for Van Johnson — rich in love.

He moved here about four or five years ago, from San Diego, to be closer to Kristal Vega, the woman he was dating and would eventually marry.

On the night of one of their early dates, Kristal had somewhere to be — a Las Vegas fundraising gala for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. It was a personal cause: Her childhood friend had a child being treated at St. Jude. So …

“She asked me would I mind going with her,” Van said. “I had no clue what a St. Jude event was, so I was like, hey, might as well make the best of it, you know?”

So it was a date. Kristal worked the registration table, getting people checked in. Van bought a ticket, began to explore the event, and discovered the cause behind it all — St. Jude, a children’s research hospital, six states away, where children from all over the world are treated and from which families never receive a bill.

“It touched me, right then and there,” Van said. “I was like, oh my God. I had no clue what was going on with this organization, and now I see everything.”

Then came the gala’s guest speaker — a St. Jude patient, a teenager, telling his story.

United States of St. Jude - Nevada - Van Johnson

“He was just so full of life and very entertaining,” Van said. “He was just a down-to-earth kid who was telling everybody what was going on with his condition, what was going on with his cancer treatments and everything.”

Van was witnessing a poignant truth — no one tells a more powerful story of St. Jude than its patients. They’re stories full of joy and strength, even as they’re stories of pain and doubt. To hear them, in person, is to be in awe of the power of the human spirit, especially in people so young.

Or, as Van put it, as only Van could:

“I’m like, this little cat is amazing.”

That was his first thought. His second was:

“How can I be a part of this?”

Kristal said, well, they could use a DJ for the St. Jude Walk/Run in Las Vegas. Van, of course, was a DJ. And so …

“Ever since four years ago, I’ve been DJing for (St. Jude) fashions shows, the poker tournaments, the 5K Walk/Run, everything they needed me for,” said the man now known as the “St. Jude DJ.”

In the Las Vegas field office for ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude, they describe Van as “the biggest teddy bear” and “the kind of guy who gets emotional every time he sees a St. Jude video.”

He’s also a Marine, having spent 16 years in the Corps, with three overseas tours, including Operation Desert Storm. Wait — what? The “biggest teddy bear” was a Marine?

“If I was to walk up to you and say hello, most people wouldn’t even think that I was part of Marine Corps for 16 years,” he said, laughing. “They’d be like, oh, you’re way too laid back to be in the Marine Corps.

“I’m a very laid back person. You could ask anybody. I’m very easy-going. I don’t let a lot of drama get to me, because I don’t have time for drama. Life’s too short for that.”

Life’s short, but there’s always time to make a difference. And so it is with Van, who turned a date-night gala into a cause of his own. Now it’s their cause, Van and Kristal’s. St. Jude is so much a part of their lives that when they were married in December 2019, the young son of an ALSAC employee was the ring bearer.

“He was an awesome little ring bearer, too,” Van said.

That enthusiasm for life, and the people in it, makes it easy to see why Van is a natural DJ. He likes to see people having fun, especially in service to some higher purpose.

And when that happens? When joy meets hope, out there on the dance floor with a favorite song playing, all to benefit the kids of St. Jude?

“It’s darn near spiritual,” he said.

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