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A Catch In The Voice Announcer’s School Spirit Tempered By Sad Reminders

Sun., Nov. 9, 1997

Glenn Johnson will be walking to campus, as he does in all weather. He’ll have the backpack full of graded tests or papers. Oldies radio will play on the headphones. His long legs and big soft-soled shoes will be eating up the familiar mile and a half of Pullman pavement.

A car will pass. A Honda. Just like the one Karen and Jeff drove.

“Oh yeah,” he’ll say to himself.

Or he’ll be on the Hello Walk between the Bookie and Murrow Hall and an undergraduate will walk by. He sees her all the time. Karen’s stature. Karen’s hair.

“You do a double take,” he said.

Last month, he was at a fraternity speaking for Campus Crusade for Christ when he noticed that one of the sorority sisters was nearly Karen’s twin, right down to the way she flipped her hair to the side.

“Several times I just had to look away and look at somebody else,” he said. “It stopped me in my tracks.”

You’ve heard the voice that says this. It’s deep, profound and old school. It says, “Please pay attention to the following important announcement,” and you do.

To his broadcasting students, it is the “Voice of God.” To football and basketball fans, it is the stadium and courtside Voice of the Cougars.

It is a fixture in this town, whether booming to the top of Military Hill on football Saturdays or describing the floats that drift down Main Street in the Lentil Parade.

“When you work cheap, you get a lot of gigs,” he likes to say.

It’s a good year to be The Voice. The football team is on a roll unlike any in 67 years, let alone Johnson’s 18 years of announcing for Cougar athletics. The broadcasting program at the Edward R. Murrow School of Communication is now ranked fourth in the country, up a notch since a survey in the mid-1980s, and he can take a lot of the credit.

In spite of all that, his daughter Karen, who would have turned 27 last month, is gone.

Johnson, 53, can be intoning tens of thousands of fans into a frenzy over another Cougar first down. But his personal loss doesn’t go away.

“It’s constantly there,” he said.

Harsh realities

The world’s harsher realities have never been far away from Johnson’s adult life.

He paid for his Iowa doctoral studies by working as a radio and television reporter, soaking up police tear gas and the unmentionables thrown by protesters in the riots that followed the Kent State shootings.

As a print and electronic reporter in Sacramento and Los Angeles, he covered Walt Disney’s death, movie studio fires and the Roseville munition train explosion. He keeps a brick-heavy bomb fragment in his office. He saw a commotion break out when Gerald Ford visited Sacramento in 1975 and was the first to report that Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme had tried to kill the president.

A quarter-century later, he still aches with the memory of a Korean War-era fighter jet taking off from an air show at the Sacramento airport and careening into an ice cream parlor just off the end of the runway. More than 20 people were killed, many of them children attending birthday parties.

“Here you have this place with so much joy and so much fun, and then to see that and see what parents had to go through,” he said. “It was one of the worst stories I’ve ever been associated with.”

One day, Karen’s school called to say she had spent hours looking through books of police mug shots. A man had pulled a knife and tried to stab her earlier in the day.

Karen, not quite 9 years old, said, “It happens all the time. Don’t worry about it.”

The Johnson family - Glenn, his wife, Kathy, and their two children, Karen and Eric - left soon after for Pullman.

The following year, the town had its first murder in 10 years. A distraught quarry employee blew himself up in his girlfriend’s dorm. Mount St. Helens buried the region in ash.

“They blamed me for bringing a lot of stories,” Johnson said.

His students reaped the dividend as he helped revamp WSU’s broadcasting program. Many now look at him each day from a wall of pictures in his office. They sport sharp haircuts, middle-American smiles and call letters like KOMO and KXLY.

“He’d been out there and he’d been working, and he knew what it was like,” said Kathy Brock, a 1981 graduate and 6 p.m. anchor for WLS-TV in Chicago, the nation’s third-largest market. “The thing that was different about Glenn from any other professor is he brought the real world into the classroom.”

The Voice

Silver and crimson balloons rise like bubbles in champagne. Fire extinguisher fog rises from the stadium tunnel. A kid in a cougar suit runs across the plastic grass.

The Voice leaves Johnson’s mouth, courses through a 1,200-watt sound system and bellows back half a second later and an octave lower.

“HERE … COME … THE COOOOOOUUGS!”

It’s a surreal scene, made more surreal by the Cougars’ fairy tale 8-1 season and Saturday’s rout of Southwestern Louisiana’s Ragin’ Cajuns - a track meet for the first-down chain gang.

“They’re going to ask for extra pay,” Johnson said off-mike after another Cougar first down. “This is the most exercise they’ve had in ages.”

Then quarterback Ryan Leaf strutted into the end zone, taking the Cougars past the 50-point mark before halftime.

“TOUCHDOWNNNNNNNN … COOOOUUGS!” Johnson growled.

But the bubble of the announcer’s box isn’t hermetically sealed from the world’s problems.

Johnson saw as much during the 1992 Apple Cup bomb scare. Without using the word “bomb,” he had to clear out a section of student seats until a sheriff’s deputy found the device - a remote-controlled smoke bomb - and whisked it away.

And once in a while Johnson will be approached at the mike by a state trooper needing to give a spectator bad news. Johnson will page them, being careful not to say a trooper is waiting.

There is a trooper in Johnson’s story, but he came bearing presents, not bad news.

That came from Ron Doke, the brother of Karen’s husband, Jeff.

It was two days before Christmas last year and snowing hard. Karen and Jeff, her husband of 18 months, had gone to visit a friend in Lewiston. Johnson spent the afternoon making Swedish meatballs, planning a 6 p.m. dinner.

At 6:15, when Jeff and Karen still hadn’t returned, Eric Johnson said, “Dad, should we get worried yet?”

At 7:20, Doke called.

“I’ve got some bad news for you,” he said. Accident. Slid across the center line. Jeff and Karen dead.

“You talk about getting a sledgehammer to the heart,” Johnson said. “That’s it.”

Johnson worked the phones and pieced the story together. An accident had closed U.S. 195, forcing Jeff and Karen to take U.S. 95. Traffic crawled through the snow at 30 mph. Near Genesee, their Honda Accord slid into an oncoming Toyota Land Cruiser.

At Christmas, the Johnsons took a deep breath and unwrapped the gifts Karen and Jeff had left for them under the tree: a heart-shaped candle holder - Karen was a nurse and cardiac rehabilitation specialist - and a license plate holder that says, “Happiness is Being Swedish.”

On the morning of the couple’s Pullman memorial service, Idaho State Police Cpl. John Ferriss met Johnson with a patrol car loaded with gifts taken from Jeff and Karen’s car.

The presents were covered with broken glass, and Ferriss apologized for that.

Then he said something that made Johnson lose it.

“‘I’ll be thinking of you guys,”’ Johnson recalled the trooper saying, “‘and I’ll be praying for you.’ Which you usually don’t hear from a law enforcement officer.”

Johnson went back to work behind the mike but he was a different man. He was now part of the unenviable elite of parents who have survived their children.

Among them was Dave Iverson. President of Broadcast Ink, which owns the broadcast rights to Cougar football and basketball, Iverson lost a son last year.

When Johnson and he meet, Johnson said, “It’s not, ‘How are the Cougs doing?’ It’s, ‘How are you doing?’ “It puts things in perspective. To go back to sports, win or lose, it isn’t really important in the long run. What’s important is what you’ve done for your fellow man.”

The optimistic way

It’s Dad’s Weekend.

Johnson is at the microphone, as always, this time telling jokes to hundreds of parents and children packed into the student union ballroom for a pre-game breakfast.

The Cougars have just a few more games, he quips, “Today, next week, and when we beat the Huskies.”

Just as Cougars have talked about going to the Rose Bowl for the past 67 years, Johnson talks about finding the optimistic way of looking at things.

He may swallow hard, thinking about the death of his daughter and son-in-law, but he talks about it freely.

“It’s not going to get me depressed,” Johnson said. “It’s not the way they operated and it’s not the way I operate. Karen always used to tell me I can turn a negative into a positive.”

With that attitude, he presses on with his full complement of local appearances, including Saturday’s breakfast.

“We don’t even have to call him,” said Liz Roeske, a fresh-faced junior from Vancouver, Wash., and co-chairwoman of the Dad’s Weekend Committee. “He just plans on coming here every year for us.”

For Saturday’s breakfast, Johnson revived his favorite cheer, which the PAC-10 banned as cheerleading two years ago.

“And that’s anotherrrr …,” he began.

“COUGAR FIRST DOWN!” the crowd shouted.

“Oh, that feels so good,” Johnson said.

At that, Roeske presented Johnson with a special sweat shirt. It said, “Honorary Coug Dad, 1997.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 photos (2 color)

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WSU 77, SW La. 7 Cougars rout Ragin’ Cajuns, improve to 8-1.

This sidebar appeared with the story: WSU 77, SW La. 7 Cougars rout Ragin’ Cajuns, improve to 8-1.



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