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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Dave Boling: When it came to telling stories, East Valley and WSU alum Eric Johnson blazed his own trail

By Dave Boling The Spokesman-Review

In those times between episodes of life-threatening responsibilities, firefighters would battle station-house monotony by telling each other stories.

They talked of sports and hunting and trucks and more sports. And when they wove tales of their dramatic fire runs, they often employed dark humor to deflect from the risks and tragedy.

At least that’s how it was more than 50 years ago at Station 4 of the Spokane Valley Fire Department in Otis Orchards, operating under the leadership of Captain Jack Johnson (named for the heavyweight boxing champion).

In this firehouse at the time, a little kid was ever-present – Johnson’s son, Eric. The boy was transfixed by every story, and sometimes was invited to sit in on games of gin before and after classes at nearby Otis Elementary.

For a time, young Eric wanted to be a firefighter, too, but his father stamped out that brush fire, seeing bigger things for his son. Eric decided that if he couldn’t be a fireman, he would settle for telling stories in the ways they had.

“I learned the power of stories from them, listening to the way they talked, the way the words rolled off their tongues,” Johnson recalled. “I was enthralled by it.”

Through East Valley High School and Washington State University, Johnson honed his own story-shaping skills, and last week retired after a 39-year television broadcasting career, the last 31 at Seattle’s KOMO-TV as sports director and then news anchor.

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell arrived at the set to celebrate Johnson’s body of work by proclaiming June 5 “Eric Johnson Day in Seattle,” saying the newsman “is part of Seattle history.”

“I don’t necessarily believe my storytelling days are over,” said Johnson, 62. “I don’t have anything set up, but it was time to step away from the news. The hard deadlines of 5 and 6 o’clock every night tend to dominate your life, and it’s time to step out from that.”

Johnson said he’s been working on a book-length manuscript and wants to explore that medium.

Mike Ferreri worked with Johnson at KOMO for 21 years, and employed a sports metaphor to describe his friend’s career.

“He was the best player on the field,” Ferreri said. “And those players elevate everybody else’s level of play. That was what he did when he was covering sports and then when he went to news.”

Ferreri admired Johnson’s perspective on reporting.

“He brought a professionalism and intensity to what he did,” Ferreri said. “He always searched for that human element of the story that could appeal to all of us. He wanted to find the human side of every story.”

On a Monday night in November 1970, he watched an NFL game that brought his future into focus. It arrived in the polarizing voice of broadcaster Howard Cosell – beloved or mocked, it carried substance.

“I was struck by the power (Cosell) had as a broadcaster,” Johnson said. “I thought the effect he had on people was wonderful. I fell in love with the idea of broadcasting then and never really wavered from that.”

At Washington State, Johnson was a left-handed pitcher on coach Bobo Brayton’s Cougar baseball team for two years, showing good breaking pitches that regularly avoided the strike zone.

“Wild, too wild,” he said. “I had a blast and I loved the game dearly, but I realized I better get going on my career.”

After starting at stations in Boise, Spokane (KREM-TV) and Portland, Johnson landed with KOMO in 1993.

“It was my goal from Day One,” he said. “I never wanted to go anywhere else. I had a chance to go to New York, but I thought, I’d be doing the same job but I wouldn’t be doing it in front of my people, so I stuck it out here without a single regret.”

Asked the key to a long career in such a fickle business, Johnson responded: “I used my imagination as much as I could, and I really worked my tail off. I respected the profession and never took short cuts.”

In 2006, when asked by a new station manager if he’d like to move to the news anchors’ desk, Johnson initially rejected the idea. After having it stressed that it would involve better pay and job security, Johnson gave it a try. “I realized I had said everything I needed to say about sports, and it felt natural to try something new to challenge myself.”

He found that it wasn’t such a significant change.

“Sports stories are human stories with an artificial setting,” he said. “My (news) stories were about some of the same things, (but) presenting it was different.”

Johnson laughed at his inappropriate response to an early story that featured footage of a woman who developed a bad infection following a gastric surgery. Johnson blanched at the gruesome video and appeared ready to disgorge just as the camera returned its focus to him.

“That was my trial by fire,” he said. “You learn.”

A regular feature that brought Johnson the most attention was “Eric’s Little Heroes.”

“It was kids’ sports,” he said. “It was insanely popular in Seattle. It wasn’t from an adult’s point of view, but through the kids’ eyes. It was just a sweet and happy thing that people seemed to connect to.”

Over the years, Johnson won dozens of regional Emmys, and during the Obama administration, he conducted a White House interview with the president.

He was proud, too, of news documentaries he produced in 2019 looking at complex urban issues such as homelessness, addiction and crime, which drew both praise and criticism – but spurred broad debate amid more than 30 million viewers.

Mary Nam, Johnson’s co-anchor at KOMO, marveled at Johnson’s unrelenting energy and enthusiasm for his job.

“Eric loves the underdog; Eric loves a story where the spirit conquers all,” Nam said. “It was never about the points or the trophy or what the scoreboard said. He actively sought out the people who are passed over or were underestimated or maybe ignored.”

That leads to the obvious question: Where lies that “human side” to the Eric Johnson story?

Surely, it’s in his times helping out his mother in the mornings, times with his wife and his son and daughter, his “banging away” at the piano, his eagerness to find new ways to express himself.

Or maybe you’d have to go back half a century, to a fire station out in Spokane Valley, where a group of brave men embroidered tales that captivated the imagination of a young boy.

The young boy became a man who was compelled, for the last four decades, to tell the kind of stories that would make the guys at the firehouse proud.