Dean Johnson: English Alum Writing His Way Into the Future
When you talk to Dean Johnson (BA English ‘61, MA ‘68) about his remarkable career as a teacher, journalist, editor, and writer, he often says “I had the good luck to be in the right place at the right time.” For Johnson, 1957 was the right time to come to Western, and he eventually found his way to the right place, the department of English. His experience as an English Education major and Journalism minor opened the doors to a truly remarkable career.
Johnson grew up in Oneida, Illinois, and even in high school he was an enthusiastic reader and writer. As a high school student, he had already found one of his favorite authors, Charles Dickens, arguably the greatest British writer of the nineteenth century. Johnson’s passion for books, words, and people led him to Western. In 1957 he declared an English Education major, but in his love for Dickens, who was a pioneer of realism and wrote journalism and essays throughout his life, there are already hints of the abiding interests that would lead Johnson from a life of teaching into a major career in journalism.
During the late 1950s, Western’s English department was developing one of the largest majors on campus. Johnson recalls that coming to Macomb was a world away from the small-town experience of Oneida, and he was energized by the deeply engaged faculty in the department and their enthusiasm for literature. He recalls studying Shakespeare with the department chair Robert Shiley, who believed the key to understanding Shakespeare’s plays was in the performance. “In class, Shiley would read the plays to us, doing the different voices, and he was very good at it.” Like English majors today, Johnson was immersed in literature, discovering Jane Austen and George Eliot, as well as Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville.
While much was the same at Western in those days, there were differences. Johnson remembers that his roommate told him that early in the mornings the university president walked through campus with a rifle shooting birds. “In those days I lived in Seal Hall, and one day I did get up early. I see a guy walking with a rifle, and it is President Beu! My roommate told me he doesn’t like blackbirds and shoots them. By god, he did!” One can only marvel at how much more innocent certain aspects of life at a rural campus were in those days.
While studying to be a teacher, Johnson found a mentor in English professor Reef Waldrep, the faculty adviser to Western’s student newspaper, The Western Courier. Johnson went on to declare a minor in Journalism, and began taking courses with Waldrep. He was also gaining important experience writing and editing for the newspaper. Waldrep was a great mentor, and the quintessential image of an old-school professor and newspaper man. Johnson recalls that “he would smoke all the time, even in class, lighting one cigarette after another.”
A haze of cigarette smoke was not the only noxious fume one had to contend with in those days. Johnson’s responsibilities at the newspaper increased, and in his sophomore year he became Makeup Editor, which included working directly on the typesetting and printing. In a world without personal computers and digital printing, that meant taking the copy downtown to the local newspaper and using their Linotype machine. These huge machines cast hot lead type for the printing press. The union Linotype operator would key in the words, and it was intense work, demanding great skill and patience. Johnson recalls that he “made corrections to proofs. I had to be able to read the lead type on the galley upside down and backwards. It was quite a chore, but a valuable skill which I used later at The Orlando Sentinel.” A single mistake on the Linotype meant having to discard the lead slug and type the whole line again. Producing a newspaper was physical, hot, difficult, and potentially dangerous work.
Johnson graduated in 1961 and immediately found a job teaching junior high school in Freeport, Illinois. Johnson loved teaching, and eventually went on to teach high school English. He always sought out opportunities to keep developing in his career and his knowledge of literature. While still a teacher, he returned to Western part-time, and by 1968 he completed his M. A. Degree. It might have been in part returning to graduate study at Western that inspired Johnson to think about taking a huge leap into the unknown: Florida.
In 1969, at the age of 29, Johnson decided to move to Orlando. At that time, Orlando was just on the cusp of becoming the major city it is today, and Disney World was still being built. Johnson arrived with the considerable assets of his Western education, teaching experience, and huge ambition, presenting himself to the editors of The Orlando Sentinel. He had an interview in the morning and was hired on the spot for the copy desk. “They asked me if I could start that afternoon! I did. What they didn’t tell me was that they had hired two of us for the same job, and only one of us would get to stay. Fortunately that turned out to be me.”
Johnson had found his metier, and his skill as an editor and a writer propelled him to ever greater success at The Sentinel. As a young reporter, Johnson says, “I wrote everything I could and never turned down an assignment.” There was ample opportunity as the city and Disney were growing. Disney World opened in Orlando in 1971 and it transformed the city.
Disney brought not only workers and tourists, but connected a now more vibrant city directly to the worlds of fashion and celebrity. One of Johnson’s first assignments was the layout of the fashion and celebrity stories written by Anne Killiany. When she left for California, Johnson took over her beat and became an entertainment and celebrity reporter. He covered everyone coming to Orlando from the 1970s to the early 2000s, and he even struck up lifelong friendships with the likes of Rosemary Clooney, the great actress and singer. Of all his encounters, Johnson was most deeply touched by Hal Holbrook, whom he met when Holbrook was touring his famous one-man Mark Twain show. Once an English major, always an English major!
Johnson’s career grew right along with his adopted city and The Sentinel. He went on to write feature stories, write for magazines, to edit the work of others extensively, and to write a long-running and beloved weekly column. It is a dream career for any journalist. Today, Johnson is still writing, at work on a book about his encounters with celebrities over the years.
As Johnson continues writing his way into the future, we are fortunate that his vision of it includes Western’s English department. Johnson recently reached out to Western’s development officer Bryce Dexter, explaining how he wished to support the department where his life in literature, teaching, writing, and journalism began.
This is not quite a new idea for Johnson. Many years ago, he thought of paying back his parents for all their financial support when he was in college. From the early days of his first job, he opened a small account and consistently saved, thinking he would surprise them. When his mother found out about his plan to pay them back, she would not hear of it, but he kept saving anyway. Now, instead of paying back, Johnson is paying it forward, helping to make it possible for today’s English majors to have the same kind of transformative, energizing, and quality education in literature and writing that he did.
The English department is thrilled to salute one of our most distinguished and accomplished alumni!