Merrill Faculty and Friends Remember Beloved Professor Haynes Johnson

Merrill Faculty and Friends Remember Beloved Professor Haynes Johnson

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.”

Professor Johnson poses with his students on their last day of class together at the end of the spring semester. Photo by Saranaz Barforoush.

Professor Johnson poses with his students on their last day of class
together at the end of the spring semester.
Photo by Saranaz Barforoush.

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.”


A smiling Professor Johnson with a stack of his books.
Photo by Saranaz Barforoush.

“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.”


Professor Johnson poses in his regalia following the Philip Merrill College of Journalism Commencement ceremony Monday, May 20, 2013.
Photo by Saranaz Barforoush.

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.

Read: The Washington Post Obituary
Dignity Memorial Website Website

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  1. Posted September 12, 2013 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

    Great read!

  2. Posted June 20, 2013 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    I had a similar experience as one of Haynes’ masters’ students in 1999. He had us over to his glamourous apartment at the end of the semester. He treated us like fancy dinner guests. It was so magical hearing him talk about his experiences as a reporter and seeing his and his father’s Pulitzers. He was so passionate about politics and news and ideas. He inspired me to dream of a life teaching and writing books. Rest well, Haynes. Your kindness and generosity of spirit was appreciated and will always be remembered.

  3. Lee Thornton
    Posted May 29, 2013 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    He was our Renaissance man. It was my great privilege to have been part of the search committee that brought Haynes to the (then) College of Journalism. Coming aboard, he told us he thought a decade, would be a good span of time to serve. How fine a thing it was that he fell in love with the College and stayed on–gracing us with his presence and his immense knowledge in so many ways–large and small–and constant.

  4. Posted May 28, 2013 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    While Haynes was a long time friend of my family I really didn’t get to know him well until we recently served on the search committee for the Merrill College’s new dean. Like in his writing he went straight to the heart with every question and every candidate interaction. I was blessed to have the seat next to him. He was a listener and talker and a decision maker all in one. The college has been made all the better through his years of service and teaching. He will be missed. The world of journalism is all the better for having had him in our field.

  5. Marcus Wilson
    Posted May 27, 2013 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    During my time as a member of the Merrill College adjunct faculty family, Haynes and I talked a few times and I will always remember how engaging he was no matter the subject of the conversation. He shared his knowledge with unmatched enthusiasm. A remarkable journalist, teacher, and mentor all rolled into one. I feel honored to have briefly crossed his path. Rest in peace.

  6. Carol L. Rogers
    Posted May 26, 2013 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

    I still can’t find the words to adequately express the deep sadness I feel about Haynes’ death. Many people have already written about some of the qualities that made Haynes such an exceptional journalist, teacher, colleague and friend. I share those sentiments. We all have our memories of Haynes but the ones I will treasure most are of the times I would stop by his office to say hi and end up talking for a long time about the latest political happenings or watching some major news event unfolding on television. With all he was involved in, he never seemed to be too busy to chat. His contributions to the Merrill College are enormous and all of us are enriched by having had the opportunity to work with him.

  7. Mark Feldstein
    Posted May 26, 2013 at 2:21 am | Permalink

    We mourn the loss of a lion, brave and wise, strong and kind. In times of tragedy, his friend Robert Kennedy quoted Aeschylus:
    “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
    falls drop by drop upon the heart,
    until, in our own despair,
    against our will,
    comes wisdom
    through the awful grace of God.”
    Farewell, our good friend, we miss you already–and always will.

  8. Tamara Henry
    Posted May 25, 2013 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

    On May 6, Haynes Johnson and I sat together on the black bench outside Knight Hall, waiting to be picked up by loved ones. I started to read the newspaper but something stopped me and pushed me to strike up a conversation. “He’s a legend, after all,” I told myself. The conversation took the tone of an interview – How else do you relate to a legend? His responses to my questions revealed his optimism about the future of journalism as well as his understanding of the challenges facing the industry. When I asked him to name his favorite book – of all those he’s written, he responded, “I’ve written 18. I don’t have a favorite.” I countered, “surely you have a favorite.” He answered that it had to be the latest one he was working on about social media or about his colleague Herbert Block. We parted when our rides came within minutes of each other. It strikes me today that in 1966, when Johnson won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for his coverage of the Civil Rights Movement, I still was attending a segregated school in Southeast Missouri (the Bootheel) and probably would have been arrested – or worse – for what today I describe as an innocuous encounter.

  9. Merrilee Cox
    Posted May 25, 2013 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

    Haynes’ energy and spirit were lifted each time he walked into the Merrill College. The dedication and passion he demonstrated over his long and distinguished professional career shone just as brightly in the classroom. It was a joy to see him with his students. For such an accomplished person, he was remarkably modest in many respects. I feel so very fortunate to have worked with him … He was a generous mentor, a wise and gentle soul, and a good man. He leaves a very large legacy and a very empty space.

  10. Tim Ebner
    Posted May 25, 2013 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    I took Haynes’s seminar class last fall. He was always willing to share his wit, personal experience and humor. He was a great teacher, and I was lucky to take the class. My thoughts and prayers are with his family.

  11. Posted May 25, 2013 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    These comments are from George Solomon – the director of the Shirley Povich Center For Sports Journalism at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism:

    For more than 40 years — first at The Washington Post and later at
    the Philip Merrill College of Journalism–I had the pleasure of being
    Haynes Johnson’s colleague and friend.

    No one ever carried himself with more professionalism than Haynes.
    At The Post, he was the writer Executive Editor Ben Bradlee wanted
    on the biggest of the big stories. Bradlee chose to put him often
    on “that big horse” because few writers could paint a picture better
    than Haynes Johnson. He also was smart, measured and thoughtful.
    And he knew how to report as well as write. It was a combination of
    those skills that made him one of the great journalists ever in

    At the Merrill College, he brought to his students experience few
    faculty members could match, as well as an enthusiasm to share that
    experience. He truly appreciated students and understood, as we all
    did, why so many took his class: Most of his students knew he
    was truly one of the best of the best.

    Merrill College students, alumni and faculty will miss him. So will
    his many readers and friends.

  12. Tom Kunkel
    Posted May 25, 2013 at 6:37 am | Permalink

    How fortunate were our Maryland students to be able to take classes with Haynes, a journalist and scholar who knew more about — and understood more about — our times than anyone else they would ever meet. How fortunate were we to have him as a friend.

  13. Maurine Beasley
    Posted May 25, 2013 at 12:04 am | Permalink

    Haynes’ death so soon after we all saw him at our commencement five days ago
    makes our loss particularly shocking. He played a pivotal role in our college for years. In addition to his extraordinary productivity as an author, Haynes committed himself to bridging the gap between the worlds of professional and academic journalism. At meetings more than a decade ago Haynes played a key role in conceptualizing our Ph.D. program to embrace both worlds. He willingly served as a reference for many graduate students and aided them in launching their careers. His outstanding credentials – along with those of Reese Cleghorn and Gene Roberts among others – served to establish our college as a pre-eminent professional school. His death leaves a huge void.

  14. Saranaz Barforoush
    Posted May 24, 2013 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

    Every Monday morning Haynes would come in and say : ” hello Sara Sir H is here.” Then with the big smile he would start his full day of teaching. Mondays were never dull when working for him. He was always so interested in knowing about his students thoughts, culture, and what they wanted to do. After every student meeting he would say : ” let me know if there is anything I can do to help, I will help in any way I can”.
    I learned so much from him, the most important of them: to have passion and belief in whatever it is we pursue in life.
    I will miss you Sir H, you meant so much to me and all those around you.

  15. Jack Speer
    Posted May 24, 2013 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

    I just met a little over a week ago with Haynes in his office to discuss my thesis project. It was a lively and engaging hour-long discussion with a man who also told me he was working on his “next book.” Like all he had done already wasn’t enough! But that was Haynes Johnson. He was truly one of the greats. I was so fortunate to have had him as a teacher for my last official class in the program. But I was even more fortunate to have had time with him before he left us as a mentor, and I hope a friend. I will miss you Haynes.

  16. Amanda Jones
    Posted May 24, 2013 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    Haynes was a great friend as well as a great professor. He helped me when I needed career advice, when I needed a reference, and even when my car broke down. I miss him and wish I hadn’t lost touch with him over the last few years. I’m glad to hear that he was teaching and writing up until the very last minute.

  17. Posted May 24, 2013 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    Haynes preached public affairs reporting just like he practiced it — with passion, humor and wisdom. He inspired a generation of young journalists.

  18. Susan Moeller
    Posted May 24, 2013 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    Haynes had remarkable gifts — for asking questions, discovering information, finding patterns, explaining it all to others. But perhaps his most remarkable gift was his gift for making you feel that he had something to learn from you. He would turn to you with a marvelous, mischievous twinkle in his eye, as much to signal to you that, of course, you could talk to him. And whatever you said, he did find it interesting. If your news didn’t quite rise to the level of the front page, it at least added to his store of knowledge about people. And perhaps more than anything else, that’s what mattered to Haynes: his investigative reporting, his columns, his books, his teaching were all in the service of the people.

  19. Cheree Cleghorn
    Posted May 24, 2013 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    In addition to all of the “great” categories people use for Haynes, my late husband, Reese Cleghorn, former dean, thought one measure of Haynes’s great character was his willingness to do shirtsleeves faculty work, serving on difficult committees with delicate assignments, or the ones which did just plain “dogsbody” work. The latter are dreaded but essential to making a great college go.

    Haynes never asked to be let off a committee Reese asked him to be on. In fact, he cheerfully took some of the toughest ones on because tough was what he did best.

    Haynes made me smile on the day of Reese’s memorial service. Always discreet, Haynes pulled me aside before got into the enormous funeral home car on a grizzly day.

    “Darling, would you understand if I called my editor in New York? He’s got galleys. I’m behind. Say so if you do. I’ll wait.”

    I told him Reese would expect him to call the editor. So did I.

    “This the right way to end the day—a book.. Go to it. Reese would be sorry he missed reading this one.”

    Haynes was so wonderful with people, he really was able to be in both places at the same time, heart wholly in both a memorial service and galleys.

    He never just phoned anything in.

    We all will miss him terribly.

    We need to remember how lucky we are to have had him in our lives.


  20. Marlene Cimons
    Posted May 24, 2013 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    This is so sad and terrible. I feel like we’ve been losing all of the world’s great reporters in recent years: Broder, Nelson – and now Haynes Johnson, an insightful journalist and most elegant writer. I first knew him when we both were working reporters, and then later as a teacher and Merrill colleague. It was fun to take his course, a requirement for PhD students, even though I’d lived through (and covered) many of the contemporary events he discussed. Haynes told wonderful stories and produced terrific books. And he had the most amazing home office – cluttered with so much fascinating “stuff” – I’ve ever seen! I will miss him.

  21. Michael Koliska
    Posted May 24, 2013 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

    I never talked to Haynes in the past three years that I have been at this college pursuing my PhD. Yet whenever I passed his office I thought I should at least pop in for a minute and introduce myself, maybe learn a thing or two from a man who witnessed history close up. I do regret to have missed that opportunity. Rest in Peace, Haynes. I am sure you were an inspiration to many no matter if they ever talked to you or not.

  22. Posted May 24, 2013 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    Professor Haynes was one of the nicest and smartest professors I had the privilege of working with during my time at UMD. His class on journalism from the civil rights era to today was so engaging, because he’d actually been there, and always had the most interesting stories to tell. I’m sorry to know that future Merrill students won’t get to experience one of his classes.

  23. Chris Harvey
    Posted May 24, 2013 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    Haynes cared deeply about this college and about all the people in it. He was one of the smartest and most well-read men I know, and among the most intellectually curious, and yet he was never, ever full of himself. “How did I do?” he’d ask after one of his TV appearances. Or “what are you hearing?” when he felt he needed the scoop on college goings-on. Always cheerful. Always positive. Always proud of his classes and our graduates. It will be tough to walk by his office and see his chair empty.

  24. Carl Sessions Stepp
    Posted May 24, 2013 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    Hayes was a giant . He had the mind of a scholar and the soul of a regular citizen, and nobody has ever better combined insider digging and outside-the-Beltway pulse-taking.

  25. Kathryn Quigley
    Posted May 24, 2013 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    Rest In Peace, Haynes.
    It was an honor to be your student. I hope you are having a good chat in heaven with JFK.

  26. Posted May 24, 2013 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    I only had a chance to talk with him briefly as a new member of the Merrill College family but Professor Johnson was kind and engaging. He listened and he cared – especially about his students. He was a gift to the Merrill College and we will miss him greatly. Rest in Peace, Haynes.

  27. Posted May 24, 2013 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    Haynes Johnson was a wonderful colleague, mentor and friend. He was warm and encouraging. He was absolutely passionate about the core values that must inform quality journalism. He loved teaching, and he was admired and respected by his students in turn. And he was, above all, a reporter – always asking, “What do you hear?” We will miss you, Haynes.

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