Veteran NBC 5 anchor Dick Johnson, a trusted voice in Chicago TV news, died Tuesday.
“I am stunned to tell you all that Dick Johnson passed away this morning,” Frank Whittaker, the station manager and vice president of news, told NBC 5’s staff. “Dick was being treated at a hospital in northern Michigan the last several days for complications related to a respiratory condition. Because of that condition, Dick had gone to northern Michigan in early March after the advent of COVID-19.
“Dick so loved this newsroom and all of you,” Whittaker said.
Carol Marin, political editor for NBC5 and a correspondent for WTTW-Channel 11’s “Chicago Tonight,” said on Twitter that Johnson was “the best kind of newsman. Smart, thorough, nimble when deadlines were crashing around him. No cliches. Just facts, fairness and great writing.”
NBC5’s Dick Johnson was the best kind of newsman. Smart, thorough, nimble when deadlines were crashing around him. No cliches. Just facts, fairness, and great writing. And he was funny! What a loss to all who knew him. But especially to his loving family.#DickJohnson
— Carol Marin (@CarolMarin) June 9, 2020
In a business in which deadlines and rating pressures can erode the niceties, Johnson was known for being a team player and taking the time to say thank you. He often extended himself to fledgling reporters.
“Our newsroom is heartbroken,” tweeted NBC5 political reporter Mary Ann Ahern. “Dick Johnson loved it all–curious, fantastic storyteller, and a kind colleague. There are tears for his loss, knowing Dick was the real deal; mentor to so many, a news soldier.”
“When I got to channel 5 in 2011, I was completely green,” tweeted Laurence Holmes, a sports-talk host at 670 The Score. “Dick Johnson went out of his way to make me feel welcomed. He was a brilliant journalist. He was a wonderfully generous man. He was my friend and I will miss him very much.”
“Dick was one of the best in the business,” former WBBM-AM morning anchor Felicia Middlebrooks tweeted. “A real gentleman.”
“Chicago has lost a journalism giant,” tweeted ABC7 reporter Rob Elgas. “My heart is heavy and full of love for all my friends and colleagues at NBC 5.”
NBC veteran Art Norman praised Johnson for his incisive reporting on Chicago’s African American neighborhoods.
“He was very comfortable in the black community. I applauded him for that. He interviewed people of substance,” Norman said, adding that when his colleague was reporting on the street, neighborhood residents sometimes referred to him as “Brother Johnson.”
Johnson had been part of a Peabody Award-winning reporting team with Marin at the Chicago NBC station and also was honored with national Emmys and a DuPont-Columbia award for his work.
On March 19, he had posted an explanation on Facebook for being off the air and in Michigan: “My apologies for disappearing from NBC Chicago so suddenly. Like so many, I had no other choice. The Coronavirus, my age, and a respiratory issue prompted my doctors to send me packing. So here we are, settled in ‘up north’ and riding this out as safely as possible. I’m sure you are too. All the best.”
Johnson most recently co-anchored the WMAQ-Channel 5 station’s weekend evening news shows after starting there in 2002, moving from WLS-Channel 7, where he’d been an anchor and reporter for 20 years.
“He had an incredible work ethic,” ABC7 veteran Paul Meincke said. Despite grueling early hours, Johnson “chose the morning gig at 7 before he went to 5.”
Even when anchoring, “He’d stick around and somehow find a way to play a role” in the reporting of big stories, according to Meincke, who also praised his dogged research and preparation. After the Cook County state’s attorney’s office dropped charges against actor Jussie Smollett — who’d reported he’d been the target of a hate crime — Johnson did a wide-ranging interview with a representative of the prosecutor’s office.
“His questions were just spot on,” Meincke said. “It was 15 minutes of grueling, honest, really good questioning from Dick. He prepared himself very well. He did his homework.”
While earning a degree in political science at DePauw University, Dick served as news director of its radio station WGRE. More recently, he was chairman of the Board of External Advisors for DePauw’s Pulliam Center for Contemporary Media.
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