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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Chuck Johnson, ‘Dean of Montana Journalism,’ dies

Chuck Johnson
John S. Adams
Chuck Johnson

The man known as the dean of Montana journalism died over the weekend. Chuck Johnson spent more than 40 years covering state government. During that time he became an encyclopedia of Montana politics and a mentor to many reporters.

Johnson's political reporting career launched after college when he was hired by the Associated Press to cover Montana’s 1972 constitutional convention.

Johnson told Home Ground Radio in 2016 that the experience was one of the most fascinating times of his career.

“It was a time of a lot of change in Montana,” Johnson said.

That included a budding environmental movement, women's rights movement, shifting corporate power dynamics and a new state constitution. As elected officials and other journalists came and went, Johnson was one of the few who stayed and built himself an institution of knowledge of Montana history.

Johnson was born in Great Falls and grew up in Helena, where he started his journalism work at the Helena High newspaper.

He went on to study journalism at the University of Montana, where he also earned a masters degree in history. After he retired in 2017 he was the board president of Montana Free Press.

Last year, he received an honorary doctorate from Montana State University.

In his decades-long career, Johnson covered 22 legislative sessions, more than a half dozen governors, nine U.S. Senators and 10 U.S. Representatives.

Mike Dennison worked alongside Johnson for nearly three decades, including time together at the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. Dennsion says many reporters are introverted, some with a harder edge. But not Chuck.

“Chuck was such a nice guy and so easy going and unassuming,’ Dennison said. “I think it helped people trust him.”

 Chuck Johnson (L) with MTPR's Sally Mauk and former Lee Newspapers reporter Mike Dennison (R)
William Marcus
Chuck Johnson (L) with MTPR's Sally Mauk and former Lee Newspapers reporter Mike Dennison (R)

Political figures from across the aisle issued statements Monday remembering and celebrating Johnson’s work.

Former Republican Governor Marc Racicot remembers Johnson never showed hesitation in asking tough questions.

“So if you were interviewed by Chuck Johnson it was civilized but piercing in its inquiry, thorough in its analysis and ultimately fair and honest in its reporting,” Racicot said.

Johnson was a regular voice of political analysis on Montana Public Radio. He and Dennison joined MTPR Senior News Analyst Sally Mauk in the cast of the weekly legislative news program Capitol Talk.

Mauk says Johnson took his job — reporting on who was doing well by Montanans, and who wasn’t, seriously.

“And I think it did stem from just the fact that he just loved the state and was going to make sure that all of us who lived here, could learn to love it or could love it enough to care about what was happening here,” Mauk said. “And that, to me, was his great gift to Montana journalism.”

Mauk and others remember his mentorship. Johnson encouraged the next generation of Montana journalists — myself among them — and often invited young reporters out to dinner to share his knowledge.

“I never got the sense that he set out to be dean of Montana Journalism,” said Courtney Cowgill.

Cowgill is the editor of the University of Montana Legislative News Service, which produces daily reports by students during legislative sessions.

“He just wanted to help and he knew that the future of journalism was in these young, new journalists, coming especially through the capitol press corp,” Cowgill said. “He took it upon himself to be their mentor and took the time to help guide them along the way.”

When asked to reflect on his career, here’s what Johnson told Home Ground Radio in that 2016 interview.

“I enjoyed every day of it. I witnessed a lot of interesting history and in my own way I guess helped shape, but choosing what to cover and what not to cover. I interviewed a lot of prominent Montana politicians and tried to look at what they were proposing, analyze it. I enjoyed the heck out of it.”

Johnson died at the age of 74 and is survived by his wife Pat Hunt.

According to reporting from Lee Enterprises, services are pending and will be held at St Peter’s Episcopal Cathedral in Helena.

The founders of our nation placed a great deal of trust in the role of a free press as the key to maintaining informed public opinion. Chuck Johnson, a…

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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