American journalism is celebrated for its cast of characters who took up the craft and, at its best, forged it into an art form. Mark Twain was but one of many. Most newspapers during the golden age of print journalism had their share of witty, irreverent writers. I’ll tell you about one who lived and worked among us in Durham.
Florence “Flo” Johnston, who died at last week at age 87 in a Laurinburg retirement center, wrote for The Herald-Sun for 20 years with an emphasis on religious life in Durham. She was also a formidable copy editor. She was not shy in calling out hapless malefactors on the copy desk who misused verbal nouns, adverbs, adjectives, prepositions, subject-verb agreement — you name it, she knew it.
One aspect of the 21st century that eluded Flo to the end was Windows 10. Many a time I drove from Falconbridge to her townhouse in Dunbarton to exorcise Windows 10 gremlins from her computer. Pesky things, they never stayed away very long. In fact, I believe they were downright smitten with her.
Flo’s abiding interest in the city’s religious life led to her nickname as the Church Lady. She liked to smoke out details of controversies — endemic to religious organizations, it seems — such as denominational splits, dismissal of pastors, doctrinal disputes and so forth.
In her personal life, she was a steadfast United Methodist, likely a legacy of her upbringing in the Monroe clan of Montgomery County. But Flo was no Calvinist, deterministic and single-minded about the path to salvation. Unlike her Scottish ancestors, she believed in many paths to a better world beyond.
What set Flo apart was her buoyant if occasionally salty humor and a deep concern for others, especially Durham’s less-affluent residents. She expected to see results, not just virtue-signaling press releases, and woe unto those who came up short in her sight.
Late in her career, Flo picked up another nickname: Auntie Flo. I gave her that one, because she reminded me of Auntie Mame, the free-spirited protagonist in the 1958 movie starring Rosalind Russell. I liked Auntie’s capacity for good jokes (and some not so good). Her desk was in a row with Al Carson, Jim Wise, Hope Ullman and other talented writers. Trust me, that crew kept things lively.
An abiding trait that defined Auntie Flo in her circle of septuagenarian bridge players was her devotion to the Democratic Party. If ever there was a yellow-dog Democrat with a bark and a bite, it was Flo. For reasons beyond my grasp, she regarded the Republican Party as the very spawn of Lucifer. Yet she never let her politics interfere with friendships and other personal relations.
Life being what it is, Flo knew her share — maybe more than her share — of slings and arrows. Her veterinarian husband, Clay Johnston, died early, leaving her in Roxboro with two sons. She underwent a double mastectomy.
Undeterred, she parlayed her college and teaching experience into a niche at The Herald-Sun through sheer persistence. Now those of us who knew and respected Flo Johnston are left with our memories of this good and decent colleague who, in the spirit of the fictional Auntie Mame, was known to enjoy the grape and light up a cigar on the deck of her Dunbarton townhouse. No, they really don’t make ’em like they used to. Aunties, that is.
Bob Wilson is a former editorial page editor of The Herald-Sun.