Richard Hyatt: Give thanks that journalist Constance Johnson graced our presence

August 6, 2013 

There was a time when news wasn't news until Constance Johnson reported it. Television was not yet a factor so the afternoon newspaper that dominated local doorsteps was the paper of record to readers in the city limits of Columbus.

She wrote about a male-dominated government and worked in a newsroom controlled by men, but for 35 years hers was the byline people depended on when they needed a complex issue explained. She wrote with authority, and she never wavered.

Johnson joined the Ledger in 1951, about the time Helen Thomas was spreading her wings in the White House press corps. It was an era when female reporters were showing editors that they could write about subjects other than high society, fashion and home décor.

Thomas died July 20, and Johnson died eight days later. Their careers are strangely connected, though one wrote about presidents and the other reported on mayors, school superintendents and other officials in a small town in Georgia.

Johnson died from injuries she suffered in a car wreck in Mississippi. The local coroner said the air bag worked, but at the age of 89, she was fragile.

No one who saw her in action would call her fragile. They would use words like aggressive, curious, relentless, knowledgeable and tough. She was all of those things, but there was a softer side to her that reminded you that beyond the typewriter she was a southern lady.

Women of her generation overcame stereotypes and demeaning labels, such as sob sisters and agony aunts, that tried to relegate them to sappy stories that men did not want to write.

Females were expected to write frothy stories about debutante balls or to peck out breezy features about the first day of school. Women like her never needed a soapbox. They let their work challenge perceptions.

Johnson wrote about a variety of topics, but her weekly looks into the machinations of government are most remembered.

She was around when there were city and county governments and her expert reporting on consolidation paved the way for Georgia's first consolidated government. Members of Columbus Council came to view Johnson as their unelected colleague. They were wise to do so, for she understood the new government better than most of them.

As a young person, she was a licensed pilot and after retiring in 1986 she was an accomplished sailor and fearless mountain climber. Her husband, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and editor Carlton Johnson, died in 1977. They did not have children, just their beloved newspaper.

Around the Ledger-Enquirer and the Government Center, she is all but forgotten, but the women in local journalism and even the mayor of this city should pause and give thanks that Connie Johnson came our way.

-- Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him on Twitter @hyattrichard.

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