Earlier this month Bob Johnson began his 50th year reporting for the Iola Register.
While most of his peers have retired, Johnson said, “It’s not that I don’t ever think about retiring, but I never think about quitting.”
The very nature of the job is what keeps Johnson coming in at 6 o’clock most mornings.
“There’s never been a single morning when I haven’t woke up and felt I didn’t want to come into work,” he said.
“I like to know what’s going on in town, which means every day on the job is different,” he said. “There’s never a night or a weekend that I’m not thinking about whatever I’m working on. I love meeting new people and telling their story. I like the nature of the business where the minute after we go to press, we’re planning the next day’s edition.”
In a week’s time Johnson will be 70. He came on board the Register when he was 20. A native of Humboldt, Johnson had just completed his junior year at Pittsburg State University, where he was a math major. While a student, Johnson worked full time on the night desk at the Pittsburg Morning Sun.
Working full time while carrying a full load at school took a toll.
“I wasn’t the strongest of students and it took me that first semester to get my feet on the ground,” he recalled. That first semester, in fact, Johnson earned all Cs, “the first time since third grade,” when he was pulled aside for being a slow reader, a humiliation that turned the young Johnson into an avid reader.
“All through those years at PSU I earned mostly Bs and Cs. I no longer set the curve,” as he did at Humboldt High School.
At any rate, once he joined the Register crew there was no returning to PSU.
“I had thought it would be a one-year stint. That it would be kind of nice to take a year off,” he said, though he wasn’t sure where his math major would take him.
“Back then, we all wanted to be scientists,” he said of the race with Russia to first land on the moon.
“I give credit to Emerson for making me a journalist,” he said of former Register publisher, Emerson Lynn, Jr., who was at the helm from 1966 to 2000.
“I never had any formal training in journalism. I loved to read, and that helped my writing skills, but Emerson was a wonderful mentor who over the years taught me how to be critical of my writing.
“I like to write a story right after the fact, let it set overnight, and then tear it apart the next day,” Johnson said.
Lynn also said the time to be critical is when things are in the making, not after the fact.
“Our role is to effect change, if possible,” he said.
The atmosphere at the Register also was a good deal different from the Pittsburg paper.
“In the three years I worked there, the publisher said one word to me. And at that, it was unintelligible,” Johnson said of what he describes as a grunt.
Over the 50 years Johnson estimates he’s worked with “100 or so different employees,” at the Register, “and for the most part, I’ve got along with everyone.”
Time has mellowed the veteran reporter.
“I make it a point never to get angry anymore,” he said. “Because nine times out of 10, people don’t know you’re mad at them, so the only person you’re hurting is yourself.
“I’ve also learned to shy away from first impressions. Everybody has a good side. And it seems like I always am able to find it.”
IF JOHNSON were to retire, he says he and Beverly, his wife of 47 years, most likely would spend a couple of months each winter down in Roswell, N.M., where their daughter Brenda and her family lives.
Since their son, Bob and his wife Melanie and their four children now live in Humboldt, the senior Johnsons are more content to stay put.
Retirement would allow for more reading and collecting coins and artifacts, Johnson allowed.
For a man who has worked his entire life he has one twinge of regret. “It’s hardly worth mentioning,” he said, but you can tell it sticks in his craw.
All his youth, Johnson worked at the urging of his dad, who endured the deepest throes of the Great Depression.
“I was happy to work … most of the time,” he said. “I got to play one year of football. Freshman year. I would have liked to played more, but I didn’t want to disappoint dad. So I worked.”
It’s not a do-over he’ll ever get. And perhaps because of that personal experience it’s made Johnson the generous person he is today, toward family, friends and work.
“If I owned the Register, I don’t think I could care more about it than I do today,” he said.