Remembering – but not canonizing – the late Chuck Johnson

March 27, 2023 3:54 pm

Montana’s state capitol photographed as it snows on March 10, 2023. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)

Charles S. “Chuck” Johnson grew up in Helena’s upper West side, along with his brother, my classmate, Peter “Pete” Johnson, also destined to become a respected Montana reporter, and siblings Tom and Sally.

Most weekday mornings, I met their father, Quentin Johnson, as I ascended uphill toward Hawthorne Elementary, a proud upper West side school in Helena’s Republican mansion district, with old-school teachers fiercely intent on our being prepared for challenges of college, careers, and life itself. Demanding so much from mere tykes such as Chuck, Peter, and me, but also offering us strong foundations upon which to build our futures: Thank you, Alice Davis, Alma Planting, and dedicated custodian, Mr. Henry!

Quentin Johnson’s family lived across the street and about 50 yards uphill from Hawthorne School, while I lived eight blocks downhill.

Daily, Quentin descended the hill, crossed Benton Avenue, and entered Democrats’ tiny lower West side enclave, near the Great Northern Railroad, where he worked, across the alley from my ramshackle home. If Quentin and I had time, we talked; if not, we always smiled and exchanged greetings.

Quentin was an open-minded Republican (yes, they existed back then), while I was progeny of Jerrold “Jerry” Reeves Richards, a committed New Dealer.

Helena was segregated at the time and ours was a rare cross-party friendship.  Quentin was fantastic and our friendship developed soundly. Quentin treated kids as equals.

Did Quentin actually vote for far-right presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater, a supporter of nuclear war?  I wanted to ask at several of our morning encounters, but it was none of my business.

Chuck and Pete

Chuck’s younger brother and my classmate, Peter, and I were buddies, excepting the time in third grade when I hit him over the head with an inflated plastic baseball bat at the end of recess. I was angry, I can’t remember why. Thankfully, Pete just laughed and shrugged it off.

Pete’s and Chuck’s mom was every bit as friendly as Quentin. Ruth Johnson somehow survived hullabaloo generated in her home’s basement, even kindly inviting us upstairs for peanut-butter-and-grape-jelly sandwiches, with milk.

I was a “latchkey kid,” essentially unknown to busy parents during formative years. The kindness Mr. and Mrs. Johnson offered helped me understand that all adults weren’t unavailable; they both truly helped my maturation.

Although Peter and I were friends, in 1966, Pete took one of my bumper stickers promoting reelection of U.S. Senator Lee Metcalf, strong Democrat (yes, they existed back then, too) and close family friend.

Peter attached the sticker, featuring bright green “Metcalf” letters upon a solid black background, inside a urinal where we attended middle school with a note inviting all males to “Pee on Lee.” I was not amused, but followed Peter’s earlier model from grade school and just shrugged it off.

My father, “Jerry” served as chairman of Lewis and Clark County’s Democratic Party whenever no one else was willing. In a staunchly Republican town, it was a hard row to hoe, with many considering dad a Communist.

Thus was Chuck’s and Pete’s conservative Republican background and my love for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Following Quentin’s example, we dismissed differences and offered mutual respect; again excluding Pete’s egregious attack on Sen. Metcalf and my earlier assault upon Peter’s head.

Later in life, Democrats finally entered Chuck Johnson’s reality, as he became enthralled with and married Pat Hunt, daughter of Judge Bill Hunt, an esteemed and staunch Democrat.

Chuck Johnson, Reporter At-Large

Chuck Johnson was a fine person and great reporter, humble even though he held great power.  Sadness over Chuck’s passing and gratitude for his friendship are certainly due. Canonization (do Episcopalians canonize?) and deification are not.

Chuck had his blind spots, for sure. He ignored the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act for more than a decade, even though it had more than 100 co-sponsors every session it was introduced into Congress.

In addition, Chuck refused to admit conservative Democrat U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, (also from the upper West side mansion area, as were Baucus’s uncle, Montana Sen. Hank Hibbard, and cousin, Montana Rep. Chase Hibbard, both Republicans), was a multi-millionaire who always favored the rich.

“Democrat” Baucus, a stooge for BigPharma, which funded his elections, single-handedly eliminated bulk drug purchasing by the United States’ government, a plague that curses health care yet today. Now, Democrats ignorantly blame Republicans for Baucus’s enormous BigPharma subsidies.

As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Baucus thwarted universal health care and co-wrote the “Bush tax cuts” that handed an average of $570,000 annually to the top 1 percent of U.S. taxpayers, tanked the U.S. economy, and created the “Great Recession of 2008.”

In addition to ignoring the above, Chuck Johnson fully dismissed my candidacy for U.S. Senate, although I campaigned across the state for more than a year on a bare-bones budget and was supported by four percent of Montana’s western congressional district and six percent in the eastern congressional district. When I ultimately endorsed one candidate, swinging an extremely close primary election to a state legislator/farmer that holds the office until January 2025, Chuck remained asleep at the switch.  The problem, especially in his later years, was Chuck didn’t escape influences of the tiny, powerful bubble of Helena insiders so terrified by my inherent populism.

Thank God for Baseball

Each summer, Chuck and I renewed our friendship at a professional baseball game, as the sunset illuminated Helena’s picturesque Legion Field with gorgeous blues, oranges, tans, and touches of red during fire seasons.

During our yearly baseball liaisons, Chuck conversed every bit as pleasantly as had Quentin Johnson, while I ate my annual hot dog, overflowing with mustard and relish.

During my most recent visit to the capital city from home in the Elkhorn Mountains, southeast of Boulder, Montana, Chuck again invited me to a baseball game this summer.

What to do, now my baseball companion is no longer in corporeal form? I’ll miss the son of a gun.

My wheelchair won’t be able to reach bleachers where Chuck and I sat. But, I have one more surgery and hope to be able to walk again. I’ll stride those uneven brick sidewalks of the upper West side, remembering the entire Johnson family, and soon ascend the bleachers for yet another game.

Paul Thomas Richards is a Montana journalist with 53 years’ experience. He also represented Helena’s West side in the Montana House of Representatives.

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