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Broadcasting legend and Loyola alumnus Phil Johnson dies at 80

March 26, 2010

Phil Johnson, '50, dedicates his professional work to Loyola in 1999.

Phil Johnson, local broadcasting legend and 1950 journalism graduate of Loyola University New Orleans, died late Monday after suffering from a lengthy illness.

Johnson began work at WWL-TV as promotions manager in 1960 when Loyola owned the station. Johnson, who would go on to serve as a documentary writer and producer, news director and assistant general manager there, was most well-known to the New Orleans public for the pointed and courageous editorials he presented on air for 37 years until his retirement in 1999.

In an interview with WWL, Johnson reminisced on how the editorials, the longest-running editorial series at any television news station in America, came about.

“The Jesuits, who owned the station had told him [then-general manager J. Michael Early] they wanted the station to stand for something,” Johnson said in the 2003 interview. “We figured, what better way to show that than by doing a daily editorial.”

Johnson’s work as news director for WWL helped propel the station to dominance in the New Orleans market and nationwide, ushering in a host of legendary broadcasters such as Hap Glaudi, Nash Roberts and Jim Metcalf. Viewers and listeners still enjoy many of Johnson’s hires today: Angela Hill, Garland Robinette, Sally-Ann Roberts, Eric Paulsen, Jim Henderson and Dennis Woltering.

Prior to joining WWL, Johnson worked as a sports writer, city-side reporter and feature writer for the New Orleans Item, and as a reporter for both the Miami Herald and the Chicago Sun Times.

In 1999, Loyola’s board of trustees awarded Johnson the Integritas Vitae Award, the university’s highest honor, bestowed upon a recipient displaying high moral character and selfless service, without expectation of material reward or public recognition, and adhering to the principles of honesty, integrity, justice and the preservation of human dignity.

Throughout his professional career, Johnson lived a life guided by the principles of the Jesuit tradition and was an enthusiastic supporter of the university and Jesuit High School, of which he was also a graduate. Johnson highlighted the university’s accomplishments in editorials, bringing attention to Loyola’s role in educating young men and women with and for others, and he generously contributed his time and talents to fulfill university requests.

Johnson organized the first communications visiting committee for what is now the School of Mass Communication with a network of national newsmen and media executives. He also brought many network personalities to the campus, including Charles Kuralt and Walter Cronkite, most notably for the dedication of the new Communications/Music Complex in 1983.

Johnson is remembered fondly by Loyola alumnus and WWL Executive Producer Dominic Massa, '98, whom he mentored along with scores of other news professionals.

"Phil did so much to inspire me and an entire generation of local journalism students through his support of Loyola's communications program and by simply encouraging us all to follow in his footsteps," Massa said "So many of the people I work with now in the Channel 4 newsroom owe their professional careers to him, and I try every day to live up to the high standards he set for all of us."

In 1999, Johnson donated his lifetime's work to Loyola. The collection consists of more than 10,000 broadcast editorials he produced throughout his 39-year tenure at WWL. This generous donation is housed in the Booth-Bricker Special Collections and Archives at the J. Edgar and Louise S. Monroe Library.

The Rev. James Carter, S.J., Ph.D., Loyola’s president emeritus, said he remembers Johnson for his quest for knowledge and for his outstanding hospitality.

“Phil loved a good meal,” Carter said. “He hosted me with good food many times--once, with Walter Cronkite at my side. Phil had a marvelous inquiring mind, and he frequently discussed the latest issue of the Scientific American with me.”

Many other religious and community organizations have benefited from Johnson’s generosity as well. One of his favorites, St. Michael’s School for Special Children, was the subject of a documentary he wrote and narrated, and received national recognition following the piece.

Johnson won numerous awards for his work including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Press Club of New Orleans in 1997; three George Foster Peabody Awards; an Emmy award and three Emmy nominations; the Distinguished Service Award from Sigma Delta Chi, the Society of Professional Journalists, in 1985; three Alfred P. Sloan Awards; the Overseas Press Club Award; the National Headliners Award; the Ohio State Award; the Gold Bell Award ; and several Gabriel Awards, given by the Catholic Broadcasters Association for productions reflecting Catholic teachings and morals.

The National Council of Jewish Women honored Johnson for his contributions in journalism, and he was named to the Louisiana Broadcasters Hall of Fame and inducted into the Hilton Riverside New Orleans Walk of Fame.

Johnson was the first graduate of Loyola’s journalism program to attend Harvard as a prestigious Nieman Scholar, and 30 years later, he was named to the Harvard selection committee to choose future Nieman Scholars.

Johnson is survived by his wife, five children and eight grandchildren. Two of his children, Siobhan Johnson Rome and Bjorn Johnson, are both 1988 graduates of Loyola’s then College of Arts and Sciences.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

To see images of Johnson’s life, visit http://www.wwltv.com/news/slideshows/PHOTOS-Remembering-Phil-Johnson-88900762.html?gallery=y&c=y.

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