Longtime Chattanooga TV news anchorman Bob Johnson passed away last week following a 14-year battle with Parkinson’s Disease. He was 73. He delivered the news each evening on WTVC for 32 years with professionalism, class, and personality. He was a great friend, and a giant in local broadcasting.
From 1975 to 2007, Bob Johnson was a welcome presence in our living rooms. Bob was a natural. He had a smooth voice, exceptional communication skills, and he was a brilliant writer.
Bob Johnson, and yes, that was his real name, started out in radio as a teen in his hometown of Marietta, Georgia. He and a couple of his buddies got a one-tube radio transmitter, hooked up a turntable and started playing music.. Their broadcasts didn’t reach far, into their own neighborhood at best. But Bob honed his skills, deepened his voice, and imitated the Atlanta deejays he heard on his way to school. By the time he was in 10th grade, he was good enough to land a job at WFOM in Marietta. If one of the regular deejays needed a weekend off, “Bobby Jay” was on the air. He even played in a rock ‘n roll band called “The Mystics.”
After attending the University of Georgia, he became a jack of all trades in the TV business. He did commercials, learned how to do the weather, and hosted kiddie shows. By 1975, he was ready to get serious and settle down. He applied for the Chattanooga news anchor position, and remained at WTVC for the rest of his career.
Alongside his “Amigos” Don Welch and Darrell Patterson, he lifted Channel 9 out of third place in the local ratings. Their affection for each other was obvious, and contagious.
He wrote and produced the Wednesday's Child series, helping connect hundreds of children with Big Brothers, Big Sisters and other mentors. He recently told me, “I miss helping foster children get adopted. At one time, we had a sixty percent adoption rate. I’m very proud of that.”
Bob’s last few years on the air were marked by tragedy and illness. MaryEllen Locher, his co-anchor of 17 years, battled cancer for much of that time. In 2005, she passed away at the age of 45. Bob spoke at her funeral, paying tribute to “my good friend, my buddy. She had such a good heart.”
Parkinson’s Disease forced him to retire early in 2007. He didn't sugarcoat his illness. It was devastating.
In 2014 he told me, “I’d be standing, and suddenly my leg would just freeze up. I couldn’t move it. My brain would tell my body to move, and nothing would happen.” Symptoms include rigidity and the degeneration of a small part of the brain. As brain cells die, the brain becomes deprived of the chemical dopamine, which enables cells involved in movement control to communicate. Muscles become tense and contracted, causing pain or stiffness. He was told there was no cure, and it would become increasingly disabling over time. In the final months of his career, viewers began to ask why he seemed so stiff and rigid.
He was in his late fifties when the illness began to take hold. He had not planned to leave the anchor chair so soon. “I really miss doing the news,” he told me in 2014. “Hopefully I can come back.” But over time his voice weakened to a whisper, and he became quite frail. Some days he got out of bed, and other days, he wasn't up to it.
He was grateful when people recognized him, and he appreciated their kind words. He told me, “Just yesterday, a lady looked me in the eye and said, “I sure do miss you.” His voice trailed off as he said, “That’s really all she needed to say.”
On his good days, he would join his old radio and TV buddies for lunch, to reminisce about his trip to the Soviet Union, his coverage of the space shuttle, all-day telethons, sweaty Riverbend Festival live shots, and singing along with fellow Channel 9 personality “cowboy” Bob Brandy. He told me he wanted to write a book. I wish he had been able to do so. He had great stories to tell.
Bob will be remembered for making a difficult job look easy, and for his authoritative, commanding presence. He was a gentle giant, with an abundance of talent, and great appreciation for those who counted on him for the news each day.
He was inducted into the Tennessee Journalism Hall of Fame in 2014. As a competitor, I was honored to have him “on the other channel,” because he forced us to be better. Our relationship was one of great friendship and mutual respect. Thank you Bob, for being a positive force in our community.
(David Carroll, a Chattanooga news anchor, is the author of “Volunteer Bama Dawg,” available on his website, ChattanoogaRadioTV.com. You may contact him at email@example.com, or 900 Whitehall Road, Chattanooga, TN 37405)