Charles S. “Chuck” Johnson, one of the state’s longest-serving statehouse journalists and widely known as the “dean of Montana political reporters,” died unexpectedly at his home in Helena on Saturday.
Johnson reported on Montana politics and government for Montana’s largest newspapers and wire services for 45 years before his retirement in 2017. During the course of his career, Johnson covered 22 legislative sessions, eight governors, nine U.S. senators, and 12 U.S. representatives, earning a reputation as a factual and fair journalist whose reporting was infused with a sense of history and institutional knowledge that gave readers a broad perspective on the most significant issues of the day.
Johnson’s wife, Pat Hunt, said her husband was beloved throughout Montana and his loss will be felt across the state.
“So many people sincerely loved Chuck, and I so appreciate all of them and how much they loved him,” Hunt said Monday. “He was so humbled by it and it meant so much to him. He cared so much for everybody, and for the state of Montana. It’s just such a loss.”
Among Johnson’s many passions was the game of baseball. Johnson and Hunt recently returned from Arizona where they watched their favorite Major League Baseball team, the Chicago Cubs, play at spring training.
“He told me he was so happy when he walked into the ballpark,” Hunt said.
Johnson has served on the Montana Free Press board of directors since 2020, and chaired the board since 2021.
Longtime MTFP board member Drew Geiger said Johnson’s greatest strength was his “underlying humility.”
“Here is a guy who is a walking history book but always with a sense of humor and an ongoing wonderment of human experiences,” Geiger said.
When 100 delegates gathered in 1972 to create a new Constitution for Montana, reporter Chuck Johnson had a front-row seat to history in the making. Here’s his recollection of that Montana milestone — and what it’s meant for the state in the half-century since — in Chuck’s own words.
MTFP board president Chuck Johnson, known by admirers as “the dean of the capitol press corps,” will receive an honorary doctorate in humane letters from Montana State University May 13, during spring commencement.
Former journalist and MTFP board secretary Skylar Browning said Johnson was invaluable as a board member.
“He offered the same historical knowledge, wisdom and guidance to MTFP that he had famously shared with readers and fellow journalists for decades as the preeminent political reporter in the state,” Browning said. “It’s an incredible loss for all of us.”
MTFP founder and Executive Director John Adams echoed Browning’s comments.
“I’m devastated by the news of Chuck’s passing,” Adams said. “He was a beloved friend to so many people throughout Montana. His impact on the state is immeasurable. He mentored dozens, if not hundreds, of young reporters throughout his decades as a journalist, and he was always humble, gracious, respectful and fair. Getting to know Chuck more personally in recent years was one of the great joys of my life. The treasure state has lost one of its greatest treasures.”
Johnson was born in 1948 in Great Falls, and was the oldest of four siblings. Johnson’s family moved to Helena when he was a year and a half old. He started his journalism career early, working for the Helena High School student newspaper, The Nugget.
Johnson later attended college at the University of Montana in Missoula, where he studied journalism.
As a young reporter still attending UM, Johnson’s first big story was covering the 1972 Montana Constitutional Convention for the Associated Press. His daily dispatches to the AP are among the most comprehensive day-to-day accounts of that historic event, affectionately nicknamed the “Con Con.”
In 2022 Johnson participated in a 50th-anniversary celebration of the Con Con. As part of the commemoration, Johnson took part in an oral history project in which he reflected on his time covering the convention.
“It was fun to do and it was fun to witness reform happening,” Johnson said in the September 2021 interview. “To me, it was kind of removing the shackles that had been on Montana.”
Montana author, columnist and history buff Sarah Vowell spearheaded an oral history project in 2021, sponsored by MSU and Montana Free Press, to celebrate the Con Con’s 50th anniversary. As part of that project, Johnson loaned boxes of his personal historical archives to Vowell.
In a letter to MSU nominating Johnson for an honorary doctorate, Vowell wrote:
“Chuck’s boxes of notes, publications, handouts, floor speeches, citizen testimony, other reporters’ coverage, delegate campaign brochures, pre-convention research and innumerable other scraps of paper, along with his tireless input, advice, gossip and enthusiasm about the convention, have been an invaluable resource to me and my colleagues at Montana Free Press as we researched and prepared our interviews of surviving delegates and staff.”
Reached for comment Monday, Vowell said working with Johnson on the Con Con project was among her most cherished personal memories.
“My guess is that the Montana Historical Society is about to get an uptick in calls and visitors asking persnickety questions about Montana history and politics because we can now no longer just ask Chuck,” Vowell said. “I was just re-reading an email he sent me in September in response to a question about labor endorsements in Montana elections and he replied with a rousing chronicle of fifty years of governors, sawmills, strikes and pipefitters — all jotted down off the top of that deep old head of his.”
In May 2022 Johnson received an honorary doctorate in humane letters from Montana State University. In a video honoring Johnson during the commencement ceremony, journalist and author Kathleen McLaughlin, who worked with Johnson early in her career, said Johnson had a knack for contextualizing news.
“He was always aware of political history in Montana, I mean, down to the minute level of things,” McLaughlin said in the video. “He would know little tidbits that you never heard of, but he would know how to put them into stories to make the reporting stronger and explain to people why things mattered.”
Politicians across the state reacted Monday to the news of Johnson’s passing.
Sen. Jon Tester, who honored Johnson on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 2015 upon Johnson’s retirement, said an emailed statement that Chuck was “a reporter’s reporter — always prepared, and always speaking truth to power.”
“As a journalist, his integrity, commitment to truth, and willingness to hold people accountable earned him the respect of readers and elected officials alike, from both sides of the aisle,” Tester, a Democrat, said. “Chuck was a great reporter and even better man — and after keeping Montanans informed for decades, he will be sorely missed by family, friends, and countless others in the Treasure State. Sharla and my thoughts are with his family.”
Gov. Greg Gianforte, a Republican who became Johnson’s neighbor after being elected and moving to Helena in 2020, said he and first lady Susan Gianforte are “deeply saddened” at the news of the passing of their “friend and a giant in political journalism.”
“From the countless reporters whom he mentored generously to the state he loved so dearly, Montana has lost a legend,” Gianforte said in a statement. “For over four decades, Chuck served the people of Montana as a fair, honest, affable, tenacious journalist with a deep passion for his craft. Susan and I mourn the loss of Chuck and pray for Pat and their loved ones.”
Western Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke, a Republican, also released a statement in which he said “Montana lost a trusted and respected voice.”
“There is no doubt Chuck is one of the greats,” Zinke said. “I always knew him to be comprehensive, fair and informed. He wielded his power of the pen to uphold the Founders’ vision of the Fourth Estate, and he has my deepest respect. Rest in peace, Chuck. You will be missed.”
This story was update March 6, 2023, to include post-publication comment and response from author Sarah Vowell, Sen. Jon Tester, Gov. Greg Gianforte, and U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke.
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