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FAREWELL TO A PIONEERING BLACK NEWSPAPER EDITOR

To the end, Al Johnson remained true to form. Always “Just Al being Al.”

Al was a Black newspaper editor living modestly but proudly in a mostly White man’s newspaper world.

Physically imposing, fashionably dressed, a bit of an innocent flirt, and always that big grin–he came across as an editor fully at ease with himself. “Just Al being Al.”

He seemed to glide through life.

He cared for his staff, was emotionally available, was deeply loyal to the institution he served, and was committed to delivering even the most complicated story.

Albert Lee Johnson had a big heart – a heart that betrayed him, that delivered a heart attack while Al was in his 40s, that gave out while he was in his 60s. That big heart needed replacement. The doctors told him that finding a new heart would be difficult.

They said his only real chance for the new heart was to hang out and wait at Duke Hospital. So he did, for a full year. He moved to Durham, haunted the halls, made friends easily and finally got that new heart.

Life’s unfairness visited a second time. The new heart began to fail. Al’s kidneys buckled under the stress. Then came kidney dialysis, and finally cancer.

This proud man decided he could not beat all three. That would  impose even more stress on his wife Barbara and his close family. He quietly ceased all treatments and declined to see visitors.

The occasion of his memorial service November 5 in Greensboro brought a dozen editors from across the region to pay final tribute.

Being Al meant wearing the clothes of “first black (fill in the blank)” with dignity and modesty. He did that for Knight-Ridder newspapers, the American City Business Journals and the National Association of Black Journalists.

Others might be better word editors, more skilled managers, and more assertive agenda setters. But Al was a total package, always on station to deliver results. Al being Al.

I knew Al when we were both editors at The Charlotte Observer. Cool Al who smoked Kool cigarettes, perhaps once too often.

Al was my teammate as we tried with some success to make the local news team a caring bunch, a cadre of reporters and editors who looked forward to coming to work each day to produce a newspaper that customers looked forward to reading. Our aim was to build the Observer into an innovative and formidable force for good in the central Carolinas.

Charlotte in the ’70s and ’80s was a rather ordinary community with a dynamic and growing newspaper. Today Charlotte is a dynamic and energetic Metropolis with a quite ordinary, and in fact declining, newspaper. It’s cheap irony but true.

That dynamic newspaper of 30 years ago sent it’s best talent around the country to produce journalism of the highest order.

We who were there will never forget the fantastic ride we had with people like Al Johnson.

May God rest his beautiful soul.

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