Ebony Executive Editor Emeritus Lerone Bennett said when he visited John H. Johnson in the hospital last week, he knew that the end was near for his longtime employer and friend.
But even when word spread that the 87-year-old Johnson had died Monday afternoon, Bennett told the Chicago Defender he wasn’t prepared for the death of the patriarch of Johnson Publishing Company.
“It just bowled me over,” said Bennett, 75. “It’s a great collective loss for African Americans and it’s a great loss for all Americans. And it’s a personal loss for all of us who worked at Johnson Publishing Company for so long.”
Lynn Norment, who along with Walter Leavy has run Ebony since the retirement of Bennett in February, said there was tremendous sadness in the corridors of the company at the news of Johnson’s death.
“You truly won’t see anyone else like that,” she told the Defender. “God don’t make ‘em like that anymore. He was just a special person. Very personable, and hands-on involved in every aspect.”
Norment said she recalls that on her first day at Ebony “a long, long time ago,” she was shocked to have a chance to interact with the company’s founder.
“He had a way about him where you really felt that he cared about you,” she said. “And to get a compliment from him, ‘Hey, good story,’ that put you on another level.
“But of course, he could also chew you out. But that’s how families are. I can’t imagine any other place in the world that would be that close in terms of working atmosphere.”
Renee D. Turner, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer and TV producer who worked as an associate editor at Ebony from 1987 to 1991, called Johnson a “tough boss.”
“He demanded excellence and he got it. And he was very paternalistic,” she told the Defender. “He felt like everybody was a part of his family.
“I brought my mother there once to visit while she was visiting me in Chicago and we were in the elevator and Mr. Johnson happened to be in it and he spoke to her very warmly, and almost every time I ran into him after that he always asked about my mother. He was please to meet her. He cared about the people who worked for him. But he was a tough taskmaster.”
Doug Lyons, a senior editorial writer at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., worked as an associate editor at Ebony from 1987 to 1994.
He told the Defender that Johnson – the master salesman – was always willing to meet with out-of-towners, especially if it meant helping his business.
“I had just been there long and my minister from Dallas (the Rev. Zan Holmes) had come up to Chicago to visit and he wanted to see Ebony magazine and he wanted to meet John H. Johnson,” Lyons said. “Now at the time I was a new employee and didn’t know if I could pull it off. I asked around and was told that Mr. Johnson loved to do stuff like that.
“Zan Holmes had come up to visit and I took him to the 10th floor. Mr. Johnson came out, spent time with Zan, asked him about the church and Dallas, and after he (Holmes), one of my associates told he why he did that. Mr. Johnson said the next Sunday morning the pastor would tell his congregation that he visited with Mr. Johnson…that was a big promotion for Ebony. That was just the common sense business sense of John H. Johnson. I just thought that was impressive.”
Bennett said it is Johnson’s business acumen that will undoubtedly cement him as one of the nation’s greatest businessmen.
“He was the greatest salesman we have ever had and one of the greatest CEO’s we have ever seen,” Bennett said. “It was virtually impossible to go in and look him in the eye and say you were going to retire.”
Bennett said when he first announced he was going to retire in September, “we had an emotional discussion and I decided that I wasn’t going to retire, and I didn’t because we had been together so long and we had been through so much.
“Finally, I went in last February, and he said, ‘I understand.’ He was a man you could not persuade if he didn’t want to be persuaded. It was one of the most difficult tings I’ve done in my life to go and tell him that I really wanted to retire and there were some things I wanted to do.”