‘At 5’2”, a giant in the newspaper world’

Mar 1, 2021


Retired owner | Oologah (Oklahoma) Lake Leader

Pam Johnson — a trailblazing journalist who led The Arizona Republic's newsroom and that of the sister publication, Phoenix Gazette, for 13 years — would have loved her sendoff Saturday at Faith Lutheran Church in her native Carthage, Missouri, even though most guests could only attend virtually to see and hear her eulogy: “At 5'2", she was a giant in the newspaper world.”

Pam, who died January 20 at 74 in suburban Kansas City following a long illness, would have been too modest to accept sole credit for her role as a pioneer for female journalists, saying those attending and many others were equally responsible.

Speaking through her eldest son Matthew, she told the group that leading women through the glass ceiling of the newspaper world took their contributions and her accepting that she had to work twice as hard as men to achieve success.

Only the second woman elected president of APME in 1999 since the organization's founding in 1933, she became the first of eight female presidents for the following two decades through 2019 — one of many milestones from posts in Missouri, Arizona, Florida and back to Missouri.

Matthew also shared personal traits some in the audience hadn't known while others had shared, bringing chuckles from both sides. She loved piano playing for both the music and relaxation it brought. She didn't think much of grocery shopping, especially as a single mother of two active boys.

She loved her alma mater, the University of Missouri, but “She didn't like KU. She knew that I loved KU. We battled over this very often.” He didn't reveal whether it got better or worse when the Big 8 became the Big 12.

But perhaps most of all, “She loved Elvis. It was borderline uncomfortable how much she loved Elvis.”

That was the first I knew about her popular music preferences, let alone how deep they ran, but it explained an uncomfortable event on Aug. 17, 1977, the day The King died. Pam was assistant city editor at The Kansas City Star, and for some reason, I was filling in that day as assignment editor on the desk and thus attended my first afternoon news budget meeting for the next afternoon's paper.

News Editor Howard Chennell chaired, telling the gathering that obviously Elvis was THE story for the following day, outlining a long list of topics that needed to be covered. He asked for comments and was greeted with hearty agreement.

As the youngest in the room, I waited until last, then suggested that perhaps Elvis — although a huge force — had passed the peak of his popularity and besides, by then, three news cycles would have passed and all those stories would have been told.

I got a bunch of stony stares, with Howard's the strongest as he said something like, "Point noted and rejected." The look and tone sent a clear message: If you ever want to see your byline on P1 again, renounce your blasphemy and forgo future heresy.

Now I know why.

Pam's main topic of conversation other than work or the fate of her favorite sports teams was her two boys. "She loved her boys, who were loud always."

Pam's people skills and management creativity were legendary, and I was reminded of another incident about two years later, when I was still The Star's energy/environment specialist, one of the few such full-time positions at any major newspaper.

Myron Levin, now founder and editor of the highly respected FairWarning non-profit independent news organization based in Pasadena after 20 years at the Los Angeles Times following his Star stint, was working another beat that sometimes crossed mine, and we both came on the same story from two angles at the same time.

Obvious answer to everyone: It was big; it was hot, so John and Myron should do it together. One problem — we got along fine except dealing with joint bylines, where my hard-headedness was met by the armor plate in his head and his Missouri Mule stubbornness was met by my firm belief that God, President Truman and the Seventh Fleet were behind me. Couple that with two equally volatile tempers, and you had a mixture akin to a Molotov cocktail laced with Styrofoam, which the FBI recently found in a car loaded with explosives and said created a crude form of napalm.

We arrived early that morning and went to work, followed immediately by a growing discussion which boiled over into a full-blown shouting match audible throughout the square-city-block newsroom with no walls.

Neither of us can remember the topic of the story or the origin of the ensuing verbal war, but Pam finally ended it before blows were exchanged by sternly warning us (and the entire newsroom), “Matthew. Bradley. Stop.” It may have been “stop it” or “quit it,” but point taken. We worked in silence, finished the story and Pam stopped by our almost next-door desks later to say that if we promised to be good in the future, we still had jobs and no permanent records. We quickly agreed.

In an email this morning, our first contact in ages but very cordial, Myron thanked me for notifying him of Pam's passing and said, “I'm sorry to hear about Pam, and thank you for letting me know. What you said about her good sense and diplomatic skills is so true.”

The memory was triggered by Matthew's comment during his eulogy, “She loved her boys, who were loud always.”

The full service and eulogy lasted well less than an hour and can be viewed in high–quality TV video and audio at the church website, www.faithcarthage.org. Pam's full obituary including information on the MU scholarship fund in her honor is located at Knell Mortuary Funeral Home & Cremation in Carthage, Missouri. http://bit.ly/3bsR6FX

Matthew closed the service with a final tribute: “I love you, Mom. Thank you. Now go find Elvis and have that dance.”

John M. Wylie II is the retired owner of the Oologah (Oklahoma) Lake Leader. lakeleader@sbcglobal.net