Bob Johnson, champion of open government, dies at 84

By Sue Major Holmes: The Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE — Robert H. “Bob” Johnson, a champion for open government and a former Associated Press executive who during a 42-year career wrote AP’s first bulletin on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, has died. He was 84.

After retiring from the news cooperative in 1988, Johnson helped start the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government and made a new career out of fighting for public access to government meetings and records.
Johnson suffered a stroke Saturday morning as he prepared to go to work at the foundation, where he served as executive director. He died later that evening.

“He was a workaholic all his life, and was right up to the end,” said his wife, Luise Putcamp Johnson.

A memorial service is set for 3 p.m. Thursday at Sandia Presbyterian Church, followed by a reception.

Paul Stevens, an AP regional vice president who once served as New Mexico’s bureau chief said, “I’m among many people in the AP who owe their careers to the mentoring and example that he set in his roles with the AP. I’ll really miss him.”

A native of Colorado City, Texas, Johnson joined AP in Dallas in 1946 after serving as a U.S. Marine lieutenant in World War II. He was recalled to active duty as a captain in the Korean War.

He was proud of having worked every news job in the Dallas bureau, and became news editor in 1953. The next year, he was named bureau chief in Salt Lake City, managing the Utah and Idaho operations. He was assigned as Indianapolis bureau chief in 1959, then returned to Dallas as Texas bureau chief in 1963.

That year, on Nov. 22, Johnson was in the newsroom of the Dallas Times Herald, adjoining the AP office, when he heard editors talking about an unconfirmed report that President Kennedy had been shot.

UPI, then AP’s archrival, had scored a beat on initial reports of the shooting when Merriman Smith grabbed the mobile phone in the pool press car traveling in the president’s motorcade and refused to let AP reporter Jack Bell take his turn.

Johnson ran back to his desk, slipped paper in his typewriter, and wrote “BULLETIN” and “DALLAS” and awaited word from his staffers covering Kennedy’s visit to call. Wirephoto operator James “Ike” Altgens, who doubled as a photographer, alerted Johnson that he was just 30 feet away from Kennedy when the first shot was fired.

After confirming the facts with Altgens, Johnson turned to his typewriter and wrote the bulletin: “President Kennedy was shot today just as his motorcade left downtown Dallas. Mrs. Kennedy jumped up and grabbed Mr. Kennedy. She cried, ’Oh, no!’ The motorcade sped on.”

In an interview with the AP in August 2005, Johnson recalled the details of the marathon assassination coverage and how AP had to battle from behind in its coverage, adding with satisfaction, “We got ahead and stayed ahead.”

The Kennedy assassination was just one of several major news stories Johnson supervised during his career.

While still in Texas, he oversaw coverage of the Gemini and Apollo space flights from the Houston Space Center.

He moved to New York in 1969 to become AP’s sports editor, and in 1972 managed coverage of the massacre of Israeli athletes by Palestinian guerrillas at the Munich Olympics.

Johnson became AP’s managing editor the next year, and then moved up to assistant general manager and assistant to the president from 1977 to 1984.

“Bob Johnson was the quintessential AP newsman who thrived on breaking news, the bigger the better,” said Mike Silverman, AP’s managing editor. “As sports editor and as managing editor, he taught an entire generation of AP journalists the importance of quick, accurate work under deadline pressure, and his lessons were always laced with grace and good humor.”

Johnson discovered journalism as a junior in high school.

“It was curiosity. You got to go out watching things happening and tell people about them,” he once said.

Louis D. Boccardi, former president and chief executive officer of the AP, said Johnson’s “passion for news” played out in his wide-ranging AP career and in his post-AP years battling for the free flow of information.

Johnson “was relentless in pursuit of the news and impatient with obstacles to getting the story his reporters were chasing,” Boccardi said.

John Lumpkin, vice president of U.S. newspaper markets for the AP and a former Texas bureau chief, said, “No one in journalism could match Bob for the combination of his wide-ranging experience in news management, his acerbic wit and his ability to charm an after-hours crowd with his impressive singing voice.”

Johnson was known for his fine baritone voice and for spontaneously breaking into “Danny Boy” at parties — including his own retirement party in 1988. An avid hiker, Johnson also would sing “Indian Love Call” during outings.

Johnson moved to Albuquerque as bureau chief in 1984, saying New Mexico was where he wanted to finish his career.

“I think I’ve done all I can do for either the AP or myself, and I think it’s time to step aside and do something new,” Johnson said.

In retirement, he was anything but idle. Two years after leaving the AP, he helped found the open government group in New Mexico, and taught reporting and writing at the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University.

“Bob Johnson was one of the major forces behind the concept of open government in New Mexico,” said Attorney General Gary King, who had been working with Johnson on improvements to open meetings and open records laws for the 2008 Legislature.

“I have enjoyed the opportunity of working with him for many years, and will greatly miss him. We’ll all have to work hard to preserve his legacy,” King said.

Johnson is survived by his wife; a son, R.H. Johnson of New York; five daughters, Luise Robin Poulton of Salt Lake City, Jan Leah Tapia of Albuquerque, Stephanie Neale Niketic of Newburyport, Mass., Jennifer Anne Robyn of Monroe, Conn., and Ann Tapia Johnson of Salt Lake City; son-in-law Novak Niketic; four grandsons and three granddaughters; and a brother, Richard S. Johnson of Denver.