WILLIAM O. JOHNSON

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JOHNSON--William Oscar, Jr., 81, journalist, author and artist, died in New York on June 21 of cardiac arrest. His lifelong career in journalism began in 1957 at the Danbury News-Times in Connecticut, a job chosen by a flip of a coin after resumes sent to a hundred papers around the country resulted in two offers, one from Danbury, the other from Monterey, CA. Later stints as a radio news broadcaster in Baltimore and as a reporter at the Minneapolis Tribune led, thanks to a strike at the Tribune, to TIME, where he wrote for the magazine's Nation section, including cover stories on the Kennedy assassination, the Warren Report, Lady Bird Johnson and Gov. Ronald Reagan. In 1967 Johnson joined Sports Illustrated as a senior writer and covered nine summer and winter Olympics, traveled to China in 1973 with the U.S. basketball team as one of the earliest foreign journalists allowed in that country, and to the USSR twice for profiles of the great Georgian weightlifter Vasily Alekseyev. In addition he covered the triumphs, and, more often, the tribulations of the U.S. ski team, and, thanks to his skills on deadline, occasional fast-breaking news stories when disaster struck in the world of sport, such as a ski lift collapse in Colorado or the disqualification for use of performing enhancing drugs of Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. Johnson won the 100 on Sunday, was disqualified on Monday (SI's closing day) and when the issue appeared, Johnson was on the cover under one word--BUSTED! As an author Johnson (William Oscar, Jr.) wrote everything from thrillers (The Zero Factor, Hammered Gold) to history (All That Glitters Is Not Gold and The Olympics: A History of the Games) to biography (Whatta Gal: The Babe Didrickson Story, Thrown Free: Wolfgang Schmidt, Vail: Triumph of a Dream, about Vail's founder Pete Seibert). From childhood on Johnson liked to draw. A career that began with cartoons in his high school paper evolved into a college comic strip about a nerd named "Arnold" which was syndicated for a time in 225 newspapers. Later, inspired by many Cape Cod summers and a pamphlet on the history of the U.S. Lifesaving Service, a precursor of the Coast Guard, he began a series of paintings based loosely and sometimes whimsically on old black and white photographs in the pamphlet. His paintings were shown at several Cape galleries, including the Schoolhouse Gallery in Provincetown. He played a mean ukulele and accompanied many family sing-alongs on the piano. He loved politics, a strong drink and a good laugh--and was a proud and devoted father and grandfather. He is survived by his wife Ruth, daughter Kristina, sons William III and Thomas, and five grandchildren. A memorial is scheduled for October in New York.


Published in The New York Times on Aug. 28, 2012
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