News From Home
by David Goodloe
I grew up in Conway, Ark. It was a small town when I was a child, outwardly not much different from many towns in Arkansas in those days.
Today, it is at least five times, maybe six times, as large as it was then, and it is noteworthy for having been the home, even if for a short time, of some prominent people. Actress Mary Steenburgen, for example, went to college there. So did Scottie Pippen, who went on to play pro basketball with Michael Jordan. Football player Peyton Hillis was born and raised there, then attended my alma mater, the University of Arkansas. Last May, I wrote about Conway when Kris Allen was a finalist on American Idol.
But before any of those people came along, Conway was known — at least in Arkansas — as the home of Justice Jim Johnson.
Earlier today, an old friend of mine sent me an e–mail. Justice Jim died yesterday at the age of 85. Authorities are saying that he killed himself. Reportedly, he had had some health issues, and a rifle was found near his body.
When he was a young man, Justice Jim was an Arkansas Supreme Court justice. That’s where the “Justice” part of his name came from. He had twin sons, Danny and David, who were my age and my almost–constant playmates. They lived just down the road from us so, when we were kids, it seemed the three of us were always at the Johnsons’ house or mine.
Justice Jim was part of the state Supreme Court until 1966, when Orval Faubus chose not to seek another term as governor. Justice Jim sought and won the Democratic nomination for governor, and apparently, he did so using the segregationist rhetoric that was all too common among Southern Democrats at that time (I say “apparently” because I was too young to sit through or comprehend a politician’s speech so I never, to my knowledge, heard anything he said during that campaign).
That fall, I enrolled in first grade. Justice Jim’s sons were in my class, and the camera crews from the TV stations in Little Rock were on hand to film the event. The reporters were interested in seeing Justice Jim’s sons in school with blacks.
I don’t recall if Justice Jim was there or if his wife handled the matter of enrolling their sons. I just remember the disruptive influence those reporters and cameras had. The kids, as I remember, got along fine. Eventually, my first grade teacher had to shoo the adults away so she could get down to business with her pupils.
Later that year, Justice Jim lost the governor’s race to Winthrop Rockefeller, the first Republican elected governor of Arkansas since Reconstruction.
In those days, Arkansas elected its governor to two–year terms so, two years later, Rockefeller ran for re–election. Once again, there was a Johnson in the race. Only this time, it was Justice Jim’s wife, Virginia. She was unsuccessful in her race for the nomination, but she was a pioneer — the first woman to run for governor in Arkansas’ history.
At the same time, Justice Jim challenged Sen. J.W. Fulbright, who was seeking re–election. Fulbright was nominated, then re–elected, and the Johnsons returned to their home in Conway. I can still remember walking through their home in those days and seeing leftover yard signs from their respective campaigns.
Justice Jim was an ally of George Wallace. I remember sitting at his kitchen table the day Wallace was shot and a reporter from the Arkansas Gazette called to get a quote. Justice Jim gave him one. It was a “dastardly act,” he said. After he hung up the phone, he looked at his sons and me, grinned and said, “That sounded like a bad word, didn’t it?”
Justice Jim and I seldom discussed politics. He knew that my parents didn’t agree with most of what he said, and that was OK. He was protective of me like a son. He didn’t say things to me that he knew would create a conflict in my young head. He only said things to me that he knew would be all right with my parents. He told me to do right. He told me to be respectful and to be fair. He was always courteous, the very image of a Southern gentleman, to my parents and me, indeed, to everyone with whom he came in contact.
And I have tried to follow his instructions and his example.
I’ve heard that Bill Clinton once told Justice Jim, “You make me ashamed to be from Arkansas.” I never felt that way. I have always been proud to be from Arkansas, and Justice Jim was a big part of that. Not because of his politics, but because of the man he was.
I can’t help but think of the ironies, though. Justice Jim, opponent of desegregation, dies during the first presidential term that was won by a black man.
If I had ever speculated about when it would all end for Justice Jim, I never would have expected that.
I certainly never would have predicted that he would die by his own hand.
But I don’t judge him for the choices he made — or that were made for him.
A couple of years ago, I was talking to one of his sons on the phone. He was telling me that his father had changed, that he had been a product of the times in which he was born and raised and that he regretted some of the things he had said in the heat of his political battles. I tried to reassure my friend that I didn’t hold any of his father’s political statements against him, no matter how much I may have disagreed with him.
And I don’t judge him for choosing the option he chose. I’ve never had the gift of being able to look into a man’s head and heart and know the pressure he felt or the demons he fought.
I pray for his sons — Mark, David and Dan — that they will have the strength to endure this ordeal, coming only a few years after Virginia’s death. I’m sure they will.
And I also pray that Justice Jim has found the peace that eluded him in life.