Former journalist Bob Johnson, a champion of open government, dies at 84


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. 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, where he 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 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 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.”