Peter Johnson ends 40-year career at the Great Falls Tribune
By Jo Dee Black , Great Falls Tribune
After almost four decades, Peter Johnson’s chapter at the Great Falls Tribune as a reporter is ending.
Johnson, who grew up in Helena, earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Montana and a master’s degree from Northwestern University Evanston, Ill. He joined the Tribune in July 1977.
“I was hired as a general assignment news reporter, but filled in on the sports desk that summer first,” Johnson said. “The first three weekends I worked at the Tribune I was on the road covering golf tournaments because publisher Bill Cordingley was a huge golf fan.”
During his tenure, Johnson covered government beats, politics, the military, education and most recently business.
“In the late ’70s and early ’80s, the national economy was in tough shape. And in Great Falls, we lost the smelter in Black Eagle and Malmstrom Air Force Base lost a major North American Aerospace Defense Command mission and there was worry that the existing land-based nuclear mission could be shut down,” Johnson said. “Great Falls had lost its self confidence.”
Local military supporters backed schemes in the late 1980s for a Midgetman Missile that would shift small nuclear missile around on large trucks and another failed plan to land the proposed Venture Star plane/space ship at Malmstrom. They ultimately landed a refueling plane at Malmstrom for several years and later the REDHORSE mobile engineering unit.
Watching the community pick itself up and grow, with a lot of assistance from private, volunteer efforts in projects such as the River’s Edge Trail, the McLaughlin Research Center and the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, was rewarding, he said.
“People from all walks of life came together and made those projects possible,” he said. “And as a reporter, I got to witness history and describe it.”
Johnson has interviewed national and state politicians and celebrities as a reporter, along with business executives of national companies, such as Charlton Heston, President George H.W. Bush, Vice President Dan Quayle and his wife Marilyn Quayle, and regional native Gerald Molen, a producer for Steven Spielberg, who brought a screening of the second Jurassic Park movie to Great Falls to benefit McLaughlin Research.
He covered the dramatic 1992 square-off between liberal western Montana Democrat Pat Williams and conservative Republican Ron Marlenee when Montana lost one of its two U.S. House seats.
“That was always interesting, but it was equally rewarding to interview local politicians and small-business owners, such as the young folks who recently bought the American Bar in Stockett,” Johnson said.
One of his favorites was Paul Pistoria, a Great Falls Democratic legislator and gadfly at Great Falls City Commission meetings.
“Pistoria displays the tenacity of consumer advocate Ralph Nader, fighting the little guy’s fights for years on such down-to-earth issues as opposition to new-fangled garbage containers or a company that chains barrels to overparked cars,” Johnson wrote in a 1985 profile. “He exhibits the snooping ability of investigative reporter Jack Anderson, periodically uncovering embarrassing goof-ups that local government would just as soon keep to themselves.”
In his classic style, Johnson’s profile also included that Pistoria, with a reputation statewide as an eccentric fierce fighter for causes he was passionate about, had a softer side, nurturing 162 rose bushes and bringing flowers to friends, shut-ins, hospitals and others.
“There were a lot of people who didn’t like him, but Paul was very popular with the working class,” Johnson said.
“Peter may be moving on, but the deep Montana knowledge and reporting skills that he instilled in other Tribune staffers will remain,” said Tribune Publisher & Editor Jim Strauss, who worked with Johnson for 22 years. “So often when a story would break, Peter would provide perspective from Montana’s past and direct other reporters to sources and background that added context and depth to our coverage.
“I will miss that, but I will miss his humor and gentlemanly style even more,” Strauss said. “He was a great reporter who loved good journalism, Great Falls and Montana. That showed in every story he wrote.”
Johnson is a well-prepared, persistent watchdog journalist, holding government and other officials accountable for their actions.
In the 1980s a Great Falls city manager who openly disliked the press, denied repeatedly that he and others were discussing salary increases at an early morning meeting that Johnson attended and wrote about.
“I had made one little error in the story and he kept blasting me about that, but what was really happening was that he and others were trying to push through an ‘under the radar’ raise, as the mayor told me years later,” Johnson said. “It was a good reminder as a reporter about the lessons I learned in journalism school.”
More frequently, Johnson’s well-earned reputation as an ethical journalist has meant countless people have trusted him with tips on everything from government shenanigans to business developments.
“That was always nice, to know that people trusted you, it felt good,” Johnson said.