Editor’s Note: “Their Way” is an occasional column that captures the personal style of the many public officials and other personalities and events covered by former Mesabi Daily News Executive Editor Bill Hanna during his more than 40 years of newspaper reporting, writing and editing.
My first contact with Doug Johnson was shortly after taking an editor’s job at the Mesabi Daily News.
I’ve never told Doug this, but I was literally shaking when I picked up the telephone after hearing our receptionist in 1985 say, “Bill, Doug Johnson on Line 1.”
I was 99 percent sure of the reason for one of the most prominent legislators in Minnesota at the time to place a call to a newbie editor at an Iron Range newspaper.
I had written a local editorial the previous day that was critical of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board for allowing members of the agency board to vote by telephone on a crucial issue.
Critical might be — no was — too tame of a word.
The editorial was filled with outrage. The vote wasn’t proper; it was rude and defiant to the Iron Range public they served; and it was just plain wrong, to paraphrase the editorial’s content.
A firm stand on the issue was needed, we believed. I did so with written words that represented the newspaper’s opinion.
But now my bravado was quivering a bit as I reached for the phone — oh, what a brave young editor.
I answered with the usual salutation to the caller, and put on my editor’s voice of determination that belied my real concern about an impending verbal spat with such a public official of distinction.
How foolish of me.
The chairman of the powerful Senate Tax Committee has a pleasant, engaging voice — but a voice that can change for emphasis when needed.
Mutual friend Matt Matasich — Da self-proclaimed Virginia Northsider Republican — had appropriately nicknamed Doug the “Little Bear Cub.”
But I knew Sen. Doug Johnson had a little grizzly in him, too, to be used when necessary in the Legislature. Thankfully, Doug felt it wasn’t required that morning.
The conversation was personally friendly from word one. It was much more a “get-to-know-you” call than a “you’re-a-Bozo” rant.
My concerns about a verbal confrontation dissipated from the start. We talked for a few minutes about family and then about my covering of Gov. “Wild” Bill Janklow for the Associated Press in South Dakota and his work for the Iron Range and jobs in the Legislature.
I had been totally disarmed, which I would learn was a Doug Johnson trademark.
Then Doug got to the real point of the call— and did so with a nice Colombo touch.
TV police detective Columbo would converse, sometimes at length, with a suspect who usually turned out to be the killer and then start walking away and saying goodbye. But he would soon stop in his tracks, raise a finger in the air and say, “Oh, just one more thing.”
As we were about to end our talk, Doug said, “Oh, by the way ….”
Here it comes, I thought. But to my surprise, he agreed with the editorial. Well, sort of.
He said the editorial was a good one, but slyly added there was a gray area, however, regarding the agency being able to vote by phone. But, yes, as chairman of the board, he would not let votes by phone go ahead.
He had the last word, of course. Just as he often did while serving more than 30 years in the Legislature, first in the House and then the Senate.
I watched for years in awe as the master politician with a cherubic face dissected Minnesota issues while in the Legislature, with the Iron Range always at his core. His fight — as it is now — was and will always be job creation on his beloved Iron Range.
He could be as parochial as any other politician when it came to his constituents. Doug could bring home the bacon with the best of them to help his native Cook and other smaller Range communities.
And he bled Iron Range red ore when fighting for regional legislative funding for the issues of mining, logging, land use, and especially job creation.
Looking inward once home, he was fully committed to supporting the entire Range with a sharing of the wealth of Iron Range Resources funds, sometimes drawing the ire of other lawmakers of the area.
And he has done so all while showing such grace while dealing with a forever hitch in his giddy-up and the troubling medical aftermath of childhood polio.
Every time I watch him rise from a chair and lock his leg brace into place I know I’m privileged to call such a courageous man a good friend.
It would have been easy to wallow in self-pity when he was stricken with the terrible crippling disease just before a preventive cure was found. But that’s not Doug Johnson’s style.
That anxious first verbal meeting with Doug quickly grew into a top-shelf friendship — now for nearly 35 years.
When my brother John and sister-in-law Patsy were invited with me for an overnight at the Johnsons’, Patsy was at first a bit overwhelmed. I told her, “Hey, don’t worry. It’s just Doug and Denesse … they’re good people.”
That’s it, I thought. That’s what makes them so special, they are truly good, regular folks.
Doug and I have shared beers and cocktails together, watched the George W. Bush vs. Al Gore presidential debate at his Lake Vermilion home with his wife Denesse and mutual friend Matt Matasich and then analyzed and disagreed on the outcome. We fished for walleye in Lake Vermilion and have been there for each other during tough times with personal ailments and through difficult family losses. And we have disagreed often on the political leaders of the day, from the Bushes to Obama to Trump.
But a good and kind friendship will always survive political differences — even in this era of Obama and Trump. So it goes with ours.
We talk often, sometimes daily. And we will do so again during the. Minnesota Timberwolves season.
“The Senator” (which he will always be to me) — you see — is (as are so many others on the Range), a victim of a selfish, big-money battle between Dish Network and Fox Sports. That dispute left Dish subscribers unable to get Minnesota Twins games the last two months of the season and now Minnesota Timberwolves and Golden Gopher football and basketball games.
Doug loves the Timberwolves. I will serve as his personal sports broadcaster, just as during the Twins season and playoffs. He’ll get the score at the end of each quarter and a short synopsis on quality of play.
Hey, what are friends for.