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Originally published Friday, June 18, 2010 at 11:20 AM

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Obituary | Longtime Seattle Times journalist Steve Johnston

Steve Johnston, a longtime Seattle Times reporter and columnist who died Thursday at 63, was a skilled breaking-news reporter who took on many major stories, but he was happiest when his work helped readers or entertained — preferably both.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Not many writers would dare call their spouses "Truly Unpleasant" in the newspaper even once — much less hundreds of times.

And not everyone living with multiple sclerosis would be willing and able to write eloquently about the way MS was limiting his life, a bit more each year.

But Steve Johnston, a longtime Seattle Times reporter and columnist who died Thursday at 63, was one of a kind.

"I always say that MS won't kill me," Mr. Johnston wrote in 1990, eight years after he was diagnosed. "It will just bore me to death."

It was a grim but typical comment from a man for whom boredom, not illness, was the worst possible fate, and the article won a first-place award from the National MS Society.

As it turns out, it was cancer, not MS or boredom, that ended Mr. Johnston's life. But MS had weakened him severely over the years, causing him to decline treatment for throat cancer diagnosed late last year.

As a journalist, Mr. Johnston had a split personality. He was a skilled breaking-news reporter who took on many major stories, but he was happiest when his work helped readers or entertained them — preferably both.

Even after taking early retirement from The Times in 2001, he continued to write "Sunday Punch" columns for the newspaper's Pacific Northwest magazine.

Over the years, those columns took readers inside the sometimes chaotic Johnston household, exploring struggles over the TV remote, paying bills, raising children, keeping a house. His wife of 30 years, Nancy, was routinely identified as the "Truly Unpleasant Mrs. Johnston," a descriptor he assigned her only after she forbade him from using his initial title for her, "Saint Nancy."

Dozens of the columns, collected by Mr. Johnston's daughter, Molly, were recently reprinted as a book, "Tales of the Truly Unpleasant."

In a foreword in the book, Molly Johnston said growing up, she would often hear compliments from her teachers about her dad's columns. "I'd obviously try to utilize them to my benefit, and increase whatever grade I was already receiving in class," she wrote.

Bill Ristow, a former Seattle Times editor who helped edit the book, had been Mr. Johnston's supervisor in the newspaper's Eastside bureau "as much as anyone could pretend to be in charge of such a notoriously free agent," Ristow said. "He was so much fun to work with, with his irreverent, sarcastic humor and his penchant for creating bizarre, pointed nicknames for everyone."

Ristow said the nickname Johnston assigned him "was, in part, 'Blind Billy,' and I don't believe you could print the rest of it."

"Ask nosy questions"

Born Oct. 9, 1946, Mr. Johnston grew up in Everett, in a large family that remains close. While he was still in high school, he and two friends ran a coffee shop called Three Thieves.

When his draft notice arrived in the mail in 1965, he enlisted in the Navy, a move he later said was calculated to ensure he'd spend his service time on the relative safety of a ship — rather than on a battlefield. But at boot camp, officers decided to make him a Seabee, a land-based construction worker assisting Marine units in combat zones of Vietnam.

After leaving the service, Mr. Johnston took journalism classes at Everett Community College. His first composition, a humorous look at a classmate's hopes of becoming a radio DJ, was a hit. And Mr. Johnston was hooked.

He transferred to Western Washington University, where he studied journalism and became editor of the campus newspaper, The Western Front.

While still in college, he worked as a reporter for The Bellingham Herald, and later edited the weekly Molalla (Ore.) Pioneer before moving to Seattle, working for several years as a reporter at the Post-Intelligencer before being hired by The Times in 1978.

Mr. Johnston once explained his interest in journalism by saying, "I get to ask nosy questions, see interesting things and write about them."

Stories big and small

Early on, he made his mark handling big stories, such as the high-profile 1979 racketeering case that sent a former Pierce County sheriff to jail. While covering that trial in federal court in San Francisco he met Nancy Barrett, and the two were married the following year.

When Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980, The Times put virtually its entire staff on the story, but Mr. Johnston was the only reporter named in a front-page byline the next morning. The page carried an overall story about the volcano, bearing the credit "Times staff," alongside an additional story Mr. Johnston wrote about a Kelso man who'd barely made it out alive after the eruption killed two of his friends.

Mr. Johnston viewed journalism, especially newspaper reporting, as essential to the welfare of the country. His children likely tired of hearing him say that without the news media, they might wake up some morning with a Sherman tank coming down their street and not have a clue as to why it was there.

At The Times' Eastside bureau in Bellevue, Mr. Johnston wrote a column called "Just Ask Johnston," fielding inquiries about which charities accepted soda can pop-tops; why the 520 bridge had so many potholes; and why some helicopter was hovering over Bellevue Square the other day.

Living with MS

Besides providing insights for readers, the column kept him productive and engaged as MS wore down his mobility and stamina. In 1999 and 2000, he wrote a series of columns called "Getting Around," detailing the challenges of living with a disability.

After retiring from The Times, Mr. Johnston was hired by then-King County Executive Ron Sims to write an online column, "The Gee-Man," exploring resources for the disabled and answering questions about county services.

To get around in the last decade of his life, Mr. Johnston used a van equipped with a ramp for his heavy motorized wheelchair. At first, he could drive the van himself with hand-operated controls, but as his strength waned, he needed a friend or relative to drive him.

Some of his favorite outings were trips to Emerald Downs with John B. Saul, a longtime friend and retired Times editor.

Saul said Mr. Johnston's unusual way of picking horses "consisted of looking at the program to see if the horse had a funny name or one that reminded him of an ex-wife or his present wife. And he never bet anything but longshots," Saul said. "He delighted when his betting 'philosophy' paid off and my lengthy study of the Daily Racing Form resulted in another losing ticket."

Besides his wife and daughter, of Bellevue, survivors include sons Eric of Shoreline, Tim of Seattle, and Barrett of Seattle; brothers Bill of Tacoma, Chuck of Everett, and Scott of Everett; a sister, Jayne McDonald of Everett; and three grandchildren.

Mr. Johnston also is survived by his first wife, Rose Ramey, of Gig Harbor. His second wife, Debby Lowman, a Seattle Times reporter, died of cancer in 1978. A brother, Tim Johnston, died in 1974.

Remembrances may be made to the National MS Society Greater Northwest Chapter, 192 Nickerson St., Suite 100, Seattle, WA 98109; or to Swedish Visiting Nurse Services, 6100 219th St. S.W., Suite 400, Mountlake Terrace, WA 98043.

A private memorial is planned.

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or jbroom@seattletimes.com


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