BILL JOHNSON INSPIRED MANY, AND SAVED ONE
by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
BRADENTON, Fla., Dec. 25, 2003 -- This has been about the saddest Christmas ever. First my oldest brother, Johnny, told me about a month ago he'd come down with bladder cancer. On Dec. 21, my wife's second husband, a commandante of the National Police in Cuzco, died when his bus plunged off a cliff in Peru, where she's from. Then, two nights ago, I got a note from the grandson of Bill Johnson, the American Reporter Correspondent whose stories from the scene of the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995 - just nine days after we began publishing - put on the map, He died peacefully late at night on October 26 at Baptist Hospital in Oklahoma City, several days after heart surgery to replace a failing mitral valve.
Ironically, being a little more broke this year, the only gift I got for my wife - before her ex-husband died - was a Spanish translation of "The Five People You Meet in Heaven." I guess I'll need to read it now, too, because I know Bill will be there. My wife tells me Jorge will be, too. I have no doubt my daughter would have been, too, if the tire that exploded on I-75 had caused her to lose control of the car (someone has been spiking our tires with nails where we live; this was the fourth time). My brother John is a gracious angel of a man, good to the core, who hopefully will fight off his cancer during chemotherapy and not arrive there until long after Jorge and Bill. His extra years, that are such a boon to us, are only in an instant to Eternity, and I'm sure it can spare them for one so good.
God will never have a better scribe than Bill Johnson. He was a selfless man who worked as hard as a journalist can through 42 long years at the Associated Press, and thern for nine more at The American Reporter. He was Memphis bureau chief for the AP and was nearby when Martin Luther King, whom he'd interviewed the night before, was killed; he stuck with the story as its lead reporter for the next three years, right up until Bella Stumbo took it into the courtroom for the trial of James Earl Ray. He was the first to interview the woman whose tiny chagres were murdered by Timothy McVeigh in the nursery of the Albert Murrah Federal Building,and the first to expose the lies of many of the claims of conspiracy fanatics who dogged the bombing trials. He covered those for us for endless years afterwards, until he became too ill to write for anyone. His reporting was the clearest, straightest account of what happened that I ever read, and we never got even one complaint about the several hundred stories he did on the bombing.
Yet there was another story unfolding in the life of Bill Johnson that has been untold. His daughter became involved with a man who left her. She became troubled herself. They had a son, and he went to stay with Bill. As the years wore on, Bill's Mom passed away. His grandson had a tough time of it in school, as bright as he is, and Bill, who was living on a meager AP pension and was in poor health, helped steer him through it. He and I spoke occasionally on the phone about the boy, and I agreed that if need be, I would take him in if Bill should die. I didn't do that lightly; I have been broke all my life until very recently, and now I have a wife and a young adult daughter who is unable to meet all the costs of her education and car and phone. We have borrowed very heavily to stay afloat, hoping that some investments I have made would rescue us. Payday keeps getting farther and farther away, though, even when it seemed tantalizingly close.
But I owe a lot more to Bill than I do to Wells Fargo and AT&T Universal Card and Citibank and Discover and GMAC and all the rest. When I was writing daily editorials on a 286 computer at 5 a.m. in the morning at the end of an 18-hour day, feeling my fingers grow stiff in my heatless apartment as I fell asleep between sentences, the fact that I had stories in my newspaper - it belongs to me and everyone who writes for it - by the great American Reporter Correspondent Bill Johnson was enough to keep me going. i was publishing important work by an important man, who wrote nearly every day for the first year and every several days for years afterwards, and so far as I was concerned I was the wealthiest man in the world.
It is hard to communicate the sense of pride I felt in publishing the work of Bill Johnson, someone whose word and whose words could be relied upon as firmly as a great building relies upon its foundation stone. It was not only a great honor to publish his work, but it also seemed like a great personal victory. It made all the struggle and harm of daily life fade beside the pride in having lived well and long enough to merit the honor. To be candid, I never really felt as though I deserved it. Bill had long ago earned a far better editor and publisher than I am, and a far larger audience. In a sense, he found that through the 147 journalists from 47 nations who came to visit us in Hollywood, many of whom were talking about Bill's work when they arrived. They took his inspiration back to China and the Ukraine, to South Africa and Kosovo and Jordan and Egypt, to the Baltic States and Nepal and Papua New Guinea.
The people who read the early email editions of the American Reporter - which was the first electronic daily newspaper and wire service with its own reporters and original content to start on the Internet - were people of great intelligence who appreciated the work, but they were only several thousand a day, and perhaps never more than 100,000 a month (we have never been serious about either registerng or counting them). And as they believed in Bill, Bill believed in us. He was one of the very first to back us in our stand against the Communications Decency Act, when we published an article he couldn't let his grandson read, and went all the way to the United States Supreme Court top ensure our right to do so. It kleft us unloved by many, but not by our readers and not by Bill.
You would think that after having written several hundred stories, he'd have something to show for it - more than this lousy editorial, as I guess he'd crack. His stories rarely sold, though, because the meat-eating press that didn't want to be associated with the Internet back then would simply steal his hard-won details and use them uncredited; so the checks I sent him came from me; and there were never very many of them, and never for very much. He said they helped a lot, though, and they might have. His grandson will be graduating from high school next Spring, and his grandfather will be the proudest man in Heaven when I meet him there.
One of my fondest dreams was that one day someone would buy us out for millions of dollars, and I would calculate with pleasure how much Bill would get of that, and how I would surprise him with it. I thought of a lot of different things he'd do with a $100,000 check from the American Reporter. But what would he say when he got my big surprise?
It was fun to imagine. I was still imagining when he died.