UPDATE: A memorial service for Professor Johnson was held on Sunday, June 23 at noon at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
Donate to the Haynes Johnson Scholarship Fund to help Merrill College Undergraduates.
By Adrianne Flynn and Rafael Lorente
COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Haynes Johnson — best-selling author, Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist, historian and eminent professor and Knight Chair at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism — died Friday, May 24, 2013. He was 81.
He entered Suburban Hospital three days ago for tests on his heart and died Friday morning of cardiac arrest, said his widow, Kathryn Oberly.
“Haynes Johnson was a beloved member of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism faculty for 15 years. Hundreds of of our students learned how to cover public affairs from one of the best journalists America has ever known,” said Merrill College Dean Lucy Dalglish. “It was equally obvious to anyone who looked through the window … that Haynes was in his element in the classroom. His entire face lit up when he was in the middle of a classroom discussion.”
Professor Johnson had just attended graduation ceremonies on Monday for the Merrill College.
Educating and mentoring young journalists “meant so much to him” that he rarely let a graduation go by without him, even when he wasn’t feeling well, Dalglish said.
“This man was a rock,” said University of Maryland President Wallace Loh. “He taught our students journalistic excellence, drawing freely on his integrity, insight and idealism. He helped anchor a new generation of journalists, and we will miss him.”
The Chancellor for the University System of Maryland – Brit Kirwan – was the president of the University of Maryland when Professor Johnson came to College Park. “Haynes Johnson was one of the most distinguished and prolific journalists of our time. I still remember with great pride the day he accepted our invitation to become the School’s Knight Chair of Journalism. During his tenure, he shared his admirable personal qualities and journalistic gifts with our students and faculty. While we mourn his death, we celebrate the significant contributions he made to our community.”
Always Working On A Book
Professor Johnson had just begun work on what would have been his 19th book (on the breakneck speed of breaking news in the social media era) and was scheduled to be inducted next month into the District of Columbia Society of Professional Journalists Hall of Fame. His most recent book was a retrospective on his Washington Post colleague Herbert Block, “Herblock: The Life and Works of the Great Political Cartoonist,” with Harry Katz.
His book with Post political reporter Dan Balz, “The Battle for America 2008,” hit the national best-seller list, as did his book on the Ronald Reagan presidency, “Sleepwalking Through History.”
While at the Washington Evening Star, Mr. Johnson won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 1966 for his coverage of the Civil Rights movement. He and his father, Malcolm Johnson, who won a Pulitzer for the reporting that formed the basis of the movie “On the Waterfront,” are the only father and son team to win Pulitzers for reporting.
Gene Roberts, a former Maryland professor and a legendary editor at both The Philadelphia Inquirer and The New York Times, shared a bond with Johnson from their days covering the Civil Rights movement. Roberts later urged Johnson to take the teaching position at Maryland and remembers him as a tireless reporter and writer.
“He was always working on a book,” Roberts said. “He would go from one book right to another. He had to be one of the most productive non-fiction writers in the country – and one of the finest.”
“There was almost no breathing room between books. He was never happy if he wasn’t working on a book.”
Balz, The Washington Post political reporter who collaborated with Johnson on “Battle for America, 2008, The: The Story of an Extraordinary Election,” remembered his friend as “one of the greatest journalists I ever knew.” The two wrote chapters and traded them for editing and voice, with Johnson often writing a second draft before Balz could edit the first.
“He told the history of America for half a century,” Balz said.
Professor Johnson joined Merrill College as Knight Chair in 1998 after a long career as a national correspondent, columnist and assistant managing editor for The Washington Post, where he created The Washington Post Writers Group. He taught political journalism at Maryland, as well as at George Washington University, the Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of California at Berkeley and Princeton University.
“Haynes was not just the best of the old school but of any school, a shoe-leather reporter before most of today’s reporters were born, a giant in political journalism whose work shaped the nation, a devoted teacher who went out the way he wanted to, working to the end,” said Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. “It boggles the mind to imagine what our communities and our lives would be like if every journalist could be that good.”
Someone Who Always Had A Big Smile
Chris Callahan, now dean of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, was Professor Johnson’s “next-door neighbor” at the Merrill College for seven years and knew him as someone who “always had a big smile, always had a laugh…one of those people for whom chronological age was a non-factor.”
Callahan said Professor Johnson was a true giant of the industry.
“He was not just one of the premiere political reporters,” Callahan said, “but helped define that genre of reporting.”
Professor Johnson could dig deep into political systems, analyzing them and translating them for ordinary readers, “and then he was able to translate that into the classroom to a generation of students,” Callahan said.
Kathy Wenner, now a copy editor at The Washington Post, was Johnson’s first graduate assistant. She said they started over together, she turning 40 and Professor Johnson entering the last chapter of his illustrious career.
“Haynes was so warm and so warm as a person, and hot temperamentally,” Wenner said. “He was passionate about everything, and nothing more so than journalism and this country.” She said Johnson had the ability to see and comprehend the connections among societal trends, global trends, political winds and distill them for other people to understand.
“He had a very sensitive personality and when things touched him they touched him in a very deep way,” she said. Wenner worked for Professor Johnson during the impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton and he reacted strongly to it, to injustice everywhere. “He kept a picture of Herman Goering (the notorious Nazi head of the Luftwaffe) above his desk to remind him of what could happen,” she said, “ He never lost his sense of outrage.”
He Was The Best
Professor Johnson’s current teaching assistant, Saranaz Barforoush, said he would call her daily at 9:30 a.m. to say hello, or to talk about the news. “Did you hear about Oklahoma,” she remembered him saying. “Did you hear about Boston.”
“Sir H.,” as she called him, still read every one of his students’ papers, marking them and calling her to talk about them. He last called her from the hospital Thursday to say he was bored and to ask for some reading material so he could work on his latest book.
“He was the best,” Barforoush said.
Professor Johnson’s students remember him as a terrific mentor who used to celebrate the end of the semester with a dinner party at his “beautiful” home in Washington.
“We were all so dazzled by him and so impressed that we were sitting in his apartment,” recalled Kelley Benham, a former student and now an editor at the Tampa Bay Times.
“I think he had his Pulitzer there right next to his dad’s. His story about winning his Pulitzer and calling his dad to tell him he won it had everyone in tears, because he was such a sweetheart,” she said. “He always kind of had, how would you describe it, had that smile like he was up to something. He always had time for you.”
A memorial service will be scheduled at a later date.
He is survived by his wife; five children, Katherine J. Autin, Louisville, Ky.; David M. Johnson, Altadena, Calif; Stephen H. Johnson, New Orleans; Sarah B. Johnson, Nyack, N.Y.; and Elizabeth Koeller, Dayton, Ohio; a stepson, Michael Goelzer, Santa Clara, Calif.; and six grandchildren.