By Brandon Reid
Senior Assistant Editor
Susan Johnson loves cats. And dogs. And horses. And trees. And people. And Animal Planet. And The Amazing Race. And dandelion greens. And the First Amendment. And the Second Amendment. And God. And church. And yes, even bats.
One day, our accountant let out a shriek. She came running frantically out of her back office, quivering, and announced, “There’s a bat in my office!” Most of us crowded in a corner, hiding. Susan, meantime, bravely marched to the back office and picked up the bat by the wing, carefully protected in an old dishrag. She calmly carried the bat through the office, talking to it gently while keeping it cupped in her hands, and then out the front door and across the street to a small green space.
Speaking of across the street, Susan is also fast and agile. Often having to cross Church Street to drop business mail in the mailbox, Susan sprints across three lanes of traffic like a cheetah. And she has demonstrated many times how, even at her age, she is still able to easily stretch her arms to the floor — placing palms flat on the ground — without bending her knees.
A broken foot was not enough to keep Susan out of work for even a minute. And neither have been multiple sneezes and coughs, which she attributes to having an allergy-like reaction to cold temperatures. She has braved many air-conditioned frozen bus rides in the summer and many brutally cold winter days.
Susan has been at The Rock River Times nearly every day, for 21 years, even working some Saturdays and Sundays. The only person with a greater tenure at the paper is Editor & Publisher Frank Schier. Susan is also likely among the longest-tenured members of the Rockford media.
While it has likely happened, it is hard to imagine a day when Susan has arrived late. She travels by bus from her home, which is in what many would consider one of Rockford’s toughest neighborhoods. She has lived there her entire life, since before crime was such a concern. And she walks a block (sometimes more) to the bus each day in the heat, in the cold, in the snow, on the ice, in the rain, in the sleet, in the dark, in the sunlight, in the middle of the night or in the middle of the day to get to and from work. She has endured many late nights (or early mornings) — going home sometimes as late as midnight or 6 or 7 a.m. the next day, staying until the paper is sent to the printer. And she has always come to work the next day.
Susan has done nearly every task at the newspaper since starting many years ago when the business was still run out of Schier’s home. Originally hired primarily for her typing and proofreading skills (she types like a tornado and has worn through many keyboards), Susan has proven to be gifted at the following, among other tasks:
• Proofreading (she reads every word in the paper, from articles, to ads, to classified ads, to each and every little word in each and every legal notice, checking for spelling, grammar, Associated Press style and legal style);
• Editing letters to the editor (including calling each person who submits to confirm their letter and any changes that may be made to it);
• Bulk mail (previously getting her fingers covered in ink each week, counting out hundreds of papers and dividing them by ZIP code, rubber-banding and bagging them up, and helping to carry the heavy bags to the Post Office);
• Customer service (answering the phone and assisting customers and readers at the front desk, even while under the stress of deadline, and working closely with law offices, entertainment venues and individuals on the specifics of their legal notices, classified ads, articles or calendar listings);
• Reporting (covering any story thrown her way, no questions asked, and also regularly covering Rockford’s Honor the Mounds event and other matters of interest, particularly animal rights, trees, the environment, horse racing, Native American culture, book reviews and public affairs);
• Entertainment calendars (gathering and organizing hundreds of calendar entries each week, typing them in, proofreading them and working with venues to ensure they are correct);
• Newspaper archives (assisting in organizing and archiving every issue of The Rock River Times); and
• Shorthand (taking notes in shorthand, which to the rest of us look like hieroglyphics; she is a human tape recorder, and legend has it she once took notes in complete darkness — read more about that in her farewell column).
Many years before working at the newspaper, Susan was a self-published children’s book author. In 1970, the Auburn High graduate penned Little Moon and the Sacred Oak. The book is about “Kirshna — the Great Spirit’s Sacred Oak,” and “Little Moon,” a Native American boy, and his father, “Bear Claw,” walking through the “Great Spirit’s Wood.” Oh, and she also illustrated the book, too. My family has a signed copy on our bookshelf, and our two young children enjoy having it read to them. Copies of the book are nearly impossible to find today — and so is finding another co-worker, friend, journalist, activist, crusader and person like Susan Johnson.
Susan has been here for 21 years. Friday, Jan. 30, will be her final day in the office. We wish her many happy “paws” as she pursues other interests. She has said she plans to continue to contribute articles and ideas as time permits, so we will likely see her name in the paper every now and again. Meantime, adopt a pet, plant a tree this spring or work to prevent the unnecessary destruction of trees in honor of Susan’s 21 years of dedication to this newspaper and the Rockford community.
The following is from the “About the Author” on the back cover of Little Moon and the Sacred Oak:
“December 15, 1948, Susan Candice Johnson was born in Rockford, Illinois. Her early grade school was St. Paul Lutheran; from there she went on to Auburn High where she was active on the school paper and became a member of Quill and Scroll before graduation in 1966. Finishing a business course at Midstate College of Commerce, she worked briefly as a Kelly Girl, then switched to Civil Service.
“All her life Miss Johnson has enjoyed reading, sketching, oil painting, and gardening. Concerning this book, she says: ‘The Sacred Oak is a symbol. Actually, all trees should be “sacred” in the sense that beauty once lost may never be regained. Trees are a vital natural resource often taken for granted, sometimes destroyed in man’s technological race for progress, which leaves us all poorer for it in the end. But the young who are this country’s future may yet reverse the tide. It is to them that this book is dedicated.’
“(It may be interesting to note in passing that the most important tree in the author’s life was an elm — not an oak!)”
Following are some comments from co-workers and former co-workers:
• Joe Baker, former senior editor — “It would be difficult to find a more industrious employee than Sue Johnson. Talk about the proverbial ‘nose to the grindstone.’ Her work skills benefited the rest of us, too. She is a whiz with shorthand, and could record comments faster than I could write. She has more than earned her leisure. May the next chapter be fruitful and rewarding. Good luck, Sue.”
• Jon Bystrom, former assistant editor, reporter, photographer and typesetter and original staff member of The Rock River Times — “In November 1991, I had just closed a family business and was looking for something meaningful to do. I signed up for a peace delegation going to El Salvador to witness the end of the civil war.
“I met Susan Johnson in December of 1991. She was working part-time for a local peace organization. Her abilities were amazing, from how well she could type, edit everyone’s text, proofread, answer the phone, collate a newsletter and wait on people who entered the office.
“I couldn’t type at the time, so Susie agreed to type my screenplay for me. I brought my computer to her house, and she typed up my handwritten pages.
“She typed the first draft of my screenplay — a comedy called The Discount Detective. In the story, a group of local concerned friends start a weekly newspaper to stand up to Illinois-style corruption. (I learned to type on the rewrites.)
“In our work on that project, she introduced me to her writings, and I found Susie could write as well as she did everything else.
“I met Frank Schier a month after finishing the final draft of my screenplay in May of 1993. He said he had just bought The North End Times several months earlier and wanted to make it a weekly with the new name — The Rock River Times.
“Starting a weekly newspaper in the real world sounded like fun. I was an entrepreneur and a writer — seemed like providence. Frank hired me for his assistant, and I immediately suggested Susie for the ensemble of people he would need to build a quality and respected newspaper.
“Since then, Susie only impressed me further. She takes shorthand like a court reporter. She writes stories with the talent of a savant and with the heart of a saint. She can do it all: Opinion pieces, news stories, community events and one of her specialties — book reviews.
“Her bias was always to tell the truth, to watch out for the interests of the community, as a voice of reason and compassion. She wrote to inform, to warn, to educate us all — from those considered the ‘least’ among us to the ‘high and mighty.’
“To her own peril and credit, she was not afraid to tell the truth. As unpopular or politically incorrect her opinions have been perceived, she stood by them. And in the 20 years I worked with her, she rarely missed a deadline.
“I have witnessed Susie in action, standing tall in the trenches for integrity at The Rock River Times. She deserves a medal of honor, respect and all the good karma she has sown. To say she will be missed is like saying the sunshine of truth will warm Rockford a little less without her. Well done, Susie! Thanks!”
• Marilyn and John Lamar (Marilyn was accounting manager and legals editor for The Rock River Times for more than a decade, and John, her husband, is a local artist and longtime friend and supporter of the paper. Both now run Studio 451 art gallery in Rockford, where John’s copper sculpture, paintings, and other works are available, alongside Marilyn’s copper and silver jewelry. Visit www.studio-451.com.) — “The Rock River Times is about to lose one of its cornerstones with Sue Johnson’s upcoming retirement. First to arrive in the morning, almost always to a ringing telephone and a line of customers, Sue is the most constant and reliable employee the paper has had throughout the years. Her typing skills are legendary with speeds up to 90 words per minute (wpm) — although we could never get her to admit to being able to type more than 70 wpm. In any case, in the years before being able to share electronic document files, Sue managed to wear out a number of keyboards nimbly typing copy. Not just the letters on the keys, mind you, but the whole dang keyboard. I particularly want to thank you, Sue, for all the legal notices you carefully typed and exactingly proofread over the years. Each and every single one of them, boring as they may have been. Your work and assistance were invaluable to me.
“Fortunately, I have more endearing ways to remember you, Sue. Thanks to your consummate love of trees, John and I are greeted every morning by the flowering crab tree outside our east bedroom window that you gave us some 12 years ago. And when we come home at the end of the day, one of the first things we see as we pull in our driveway is your beautiful sugar maple, now about 15 years old. You have shared many of your little sapling trees over the years. Surely, everyone who has one of your trees considers themselves quite lucky to know you — I know I do.
“So, congratulations to you, Susie! If anyone has earned her retirement, and then some, it is you. I hope you get to do all the things you’ve wanted to do now that you have the time. There is just one thing I think you should do. Every morning, you should call Frank and give him an update on your cats — just so he doesn’t miss you too much.
“Wishing you all the best,
“Marilyn and John”
• Jeff Helberg, senior graphic designer/production manager — “It’s been my pleasure to work with Susan Johnson for more than 11 years. She is an outstanding employee, one I would hire in a minute if I could. Besides her ‘old-time,’ yet relevant, skills, like shorthand, typing and editing, Susan is invaluable by dealing with thousands of customers annually, on the phone and at the front desk. Her excellent knowledge of all facets of the newspaper’s operation is so helpful, because she pitches in in every possible way.
“Susan brings more to work than the typical employee. Susan is an ethical and moral guidepost in that she defends what is right and speaks out against what is wrong. Susan has great levels of compassion for people at a disadvantage, and loves animals and all living things (including trees!). It’s refreshing to work with someone like Susan who holds life and truth and God in such high esteem. I will miss Susan greatly.”
• Chris Luttig, legals editor and classifieds manager — “Susan will be missed, not only by The Rock River Times’ staff, but all those who she interacts with on a weekly basis. From the regular customers that walk in, to the ladies at the County Clerk’s Office.”
• Jeremy Oster, staff writer and advertising sales — “I met Susan Johnson in January of 2014 when I started working at TRRT. In my short time here, I can tell that Susan has been an important contributor these past 21 years to The Rock River Times newspaper, well beyond her title of copy editor.
“In addition to her clerical duties, Susan has long been the first smiling face that greets visitors to our downtown Rockford office. Anyone who has ever come down and filed an assumed name for a business, a divorce, or a name change probably remembers Susan’s prompt and polite service.
“Susan has written many informative and educational articles during her tenure as copy editor. Susan’s favorite reoccurring assignment is the column she writes on Honor the Mounds, which is held each August at Beattie Park in Rockford. I hope Susan continues to cover this event in her retirement.
“I will miss Susan’s cheerful greeting when I come in each day. Even on bad days, no matter what the mood in the office, we could always count on Susan’s positive Christian outlook to help increase morale. Good luck, Susan, in your retirement — we all know how much you’ve earned it!”
• Jeff Havens, former staff writer/investigative reporter — “Susan was an excellent proofreader, and could always be relied on to provide accurate and timely work. I learned a great deal from her when I started at the paper in 2002. But more than that, she was the source for many interesting discussions, especially her passionate defense of those who had no voice, specifically animals.
“I very much enjoyed working with Susan, and wish her all the best in a well-earned retirement!”
• Marieke McClendon, former classifieds and circulation manager and graphic designer — “During the time that I worked with her, Susan was always a very warm, helpful person. She worked really hard, was hyper-focused and super busy. In fact, if I remember correctly, during the time that I worked there she actually wore out a couple of keyboards! I can still vividly picture her handwriting in my mind. It is probably some of the most beautiful handwriting I’ve ever seen. So precise, consistent, and easy to read. I know that’s a weird thing, but I liked looking at the handwritten messages she would leave on my desk when I missed a phone call or something. It always seemed to me that she took great care in her work, was appreciative, and had a good sense of humor.”
• Frank Schier, editor and publisher, — “The first time I met Sue was when she worked in the admissions office of Rockford College. I don’t know if she even remembers this; I was a non-trad student, and I noticed she was very intense and hard working. A few years later, this paper filled my life, and I needed help. ‘Susie,’ as I call her, has been helping me ever since, with so many things that have been well-noted in this article with much-deserved admiration by her co-workers.
“I really admire that she has worn out more than three keyboards; in every case, the ‘A’ key had a hole worn in it. She only types 80-plus words a minute.
“Susie also has community fans, who admire her fine writing and the big heart reflected in the artisanship of her articles, reflecting her world of ever-growing knowledge and deep and sincere concern. She is the Queen of Our Calendars, and has gone out of her way to list many events for local organizations, arts groups, musicians and churches. She is a church-going woman who abstains from alcohol, poor language and takes pity on those of us who don’t have those qualities (heathens like me), and I am New-Testamentally positive she is much in God’s favor. She is admirably passionate about and constantly displays God’s grace.
“Her articles about the environment are my favorites for their inherent love of the earth. We both have an affinity for trees; and when the unthinking city workers or some strange neighbor cuts down even a sapling on her property on Soper Avenue, she reacts as if those people have cut down her children — because they have. I have seen her go to great length to transplant saplings out of her yard, giving them to neighbors, friends or anyone who expresses an interest. Arbor Day has a great advocate in Sue Johnson.
“That brings to mind another one of her passions — horse racing. Really. Because she loves horses, her articles about thoroughbred racing are the most fun to tease her about, because of the seeming dichotomy with her character. Such joking usually occurs around the time of the Preakness (‘Second jewel in the Triple Crown,’ she notes when asked to spell the word ‘Preakness’). With a grin at my walking dictionary, I then trot out my form of my standard hyperbole, ‘Susie, I saw you out at OTB standing on tables, drinking martinis and smoking cigars after the last Kentucky Derby!’
“‘You’re crazy, and incorrigible’ is her usual reply, followed by a ‘Meowww.’ Yes, a ‘Meowww.’
“Through the years, Ms. Johnson has provided me with WAY TOO MUCH INFORMATION ABOUT CATS! She loves the dang, itchy things that I’m allergic to, despite my pointing out words like ‘CATastrophe, CATapult, CATaclysm, CATaract, CATcall, CATharis, CATerwaul, CATgut, CATheter, CAT-o-nine tails, and CATacombs. After all those words, SHE STILL LOVES CATS. I don’t get it. She even collects neighborhood strays and feeds them.
“Speaking of feeding, Mr. Reid alluded to her affections for dandelions in her yard. Yes, she also loves what we might consider a lowly weed, too — for teas or salads. She loves to humorously proselytize to me about the wonders of their health benefits, resulting in my usual comment of ‘Go to your room.’ She will usually retort, ‘But I AM in my room.’
“And how true that is, because the office of The Rock River Times will alway be her home. Susie will always be welcome. Whenever she needs us, we will be here, because she has always been here for us, with the following and more: complete and amazing attention to detail, good grammar, unbelievable spelling, constant tolerance for my bad temper and swearing, smiles, on-time-door-unlocking ability, great humor and unmeasurable dependability. Despite her cats, Susan Johnson has never missed a single Monday-Tuesday deadline in 21 years. Contrary to the cliché, Susan Johnson IS irreplaceable.”
From the Jan. 28-Feb. 3, 2015, issue