Maybe, maybe not. But there's no doubt that Johnston contracted pneumonia and passed away 10 days later.
That story's got a grip on me for a couple of reasons. First, three of the colleagues I most respect have recently departed--not to the grave, happily enough, but to Elysian Fields of their own choosing. The second reason: I'm laid up with a condition similar to Old Joe Johnston's at the moment, coughing up prayers of thanks for the invention of antibiotics but still feeling draggy enough to wonder who'll be taking their hats off at my funeral.
I know I can count on Barry Yeoman, M.J. Sharp and Eric Bates. You could, too, if you knew them in person as well as you've gotten to know their stories and images.
Between them, this trio has given you and me three decades' worth of the kind of journalistic excellence you simply do not find in alternative weeklies that can only afford three full-time reporters and one part-time photographer. They've been Davids to a world of Goliaths. They've felled the well-heeled and bucked up the downtrodden. And they've beaten out well-funded journalists from the Washington Post and The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal for many of the nation's most prestigious journalism prizes.
That's not because they wanted recognition--if they'd wanted that, they might have won twice the laurels working for any of the publications above, and they certainly would've earned twice the money. Nope: Barry, M.J. and Eric labored in this particular journalistic salt mine for so many years because they're strange.
They're the kind of strange people who see money and fame as trifles compared with a chance to tell the truth as they see it, and as they find it. The chance to tell that truth unvarnished and unpolished, without ever being reminded by a higher-up that they might be hurting their publication's precious bottom line by doing so.
I don't have to tell you their truth-telling made a difference. You could see that for yourself in the very last Independent stories they produced.
Eric's finale, written while he was being wooed away to become investigative editor at Mother Jones magazine, was a damning indictment of the inherent inequities in North Carolina's system of sentencing men and women to death. He even got the two most recent Supreme Court justices of the state, one of them a staunch supporter of capital punishment, to admit that North Carolina chooses who lives and dies by a process that amounts to a lottery. Thus the story's chilling title, "The Death Lottery."
Barry and M.J., both leaving to further their flourishing freelance careers with national publications like The Nation and The New York Times Magazine, take their bows together this week with Part Two of "Walking Home" (page 23). Barry started attending Saturday-night services at the Loves Creek Hispanic Baptist Mission in the spring, using his personal warmth and professional skill to make himself a regular in Siler City's Hispanic community. M.J. immersed herself in these folks' lives at a Jordan Lake baptism last May. And as you'll see in this week's climax, she used her own charms to end up as a welcome guest at Wendy Benitez's 17th birthday party.
Those stories sum up what these three have done for us all: vividly portray the heart, the soul and the terrific injustices that define the Triangle and North Carolina. But that's not the only reason we should doff our collective hats to Barry, M.J. and Eric during this chilly midwinter. Read on, and you'll see what I mean.
Barry Yeoman could tattoo his whole body with the names of national awards, and the skins of evildoing politicians and slumlords, that he has collected during 14 years as The Independent's ace reporter.
His forehead would feature the 1998 Batten Medal, given annually to one reporter in the country for three year's worth of the best humanitarian journalism in America. His chest would trumpet the laurels Barry won for his five-part "Highway Robbery" series in 1992, which unearthed the shady doings of the N.C. Department of Transportation--and vividly portrayed the devastation wrought upon the human beings caught in the path of the bulldozers. His back would be filled with the accolades for "Dirty Money," a three-part opus in 1996 that detailed the ways lobbyists for the state's biggest polluters not only influence--but actually write--the laws that help their companies keep polluting our air and water.
It would help, of course, that Barry comes closer in physical stature to Ross Perot than Ric Flair. But he sure writes big.
By the time I joined The Independent staff in 1990, Barry had already established himself as the terror of the state Capitol, reporting on the misdeeds of North Carolina's most powerful politicians with a voice that alternated between commanding authority and killing wit. I knew him as the man who had declared, on the cover, that the famously disinterested Gov. Jim Martin was the state vegetable. (One of Barry's proudest moments was when Martin subsequently took the podium at a press conference and reassured concerned citizens that he was not, in fact, a vegetable.)
So it was a wee bit confusing to meet Barry in person. I had expected the kind of intrepid reporter that Hollywood might depict, all booming voice and macho bravado. What I encountered was this compact-sized fellow with a merry smile, a severe stutter, and a manner so gentle he could have been the model for one of those sweet forest animals in the old Disney movies. Expecting to be intimidated by a person as relentlessly forceful as his prose, I found myself intimidated by someone who seemed almost too nice.
In fact, one of the things Barry's oldest Independent colleague, founding publisher Steve Schewel, most remembers is Barry's ticklishness. "I love to sneak up behind him when he's on an important call," Steve says, "and start tickling and watch him squirm, laugh, protest silently." Steve also points out that "Barry's puns are the most frequent and worst in the world. He's shameless."
If Barry did serve as the model for a Disney animal, though, it'd surely be a gentle-but-wily fox. Staff writer Barbara Solow loved hearing about Barry's two interviews for the job: one with Steve, a longtime political activist and rabble-rouser, and one with founding editor Katherine Fulton, a hard-nosed journalist.
Let Barbara tell it. "When Steve asked him pointedly, 'Are we activists first or journalists first?' Barry responded, 'Activists first, of course.' A few minutes later, in his interview with Katherine, she asked the same question. 'Are we journalists first or activists first?' And Barry replied, 'Journalists first, of course.' He promptly got the job."
Maybe that's how Barry manages to get everybody, from governors to the frightened tenants of dilapidated rental properties, to 'fess up their darkest fears and hopes and improprieties. "Barry has continually amazed me," says staff writer Afefe L. Tyehimba, "with his ability to tap into folk and open himself wide enough to engage them on any emotional, political or cultural playing field they choose--and never, ever flinch."
No, never. Not many among us would have walked unbidden into the Loves Creek Hispanic Baptist Mission last spring, introduced ourselves as best we could in Spanish, and started singing along to the hymns. And would you have done what Barry so memorably did several legislative sessions ago? As the General Assembly was squashing another attempt to repeal the state's embarrassingly repressive law against "sodomy" (heterosexual encounters included), Barry went from office to office, from crusty old legislator to crusty old legislator, asking them if they had ever committed sodomy.
"When I'm feeling down," Barbara says, "all I have to do is picture mild-mannered (but clearly lionhearted) Barry asking that of state lawmakers and I can't help but grin."
When I think of M.J. Sharp, I see an image. Not one of the hundreds of memorable photographs she's taken since coming to The Independent in 1990, but something more vivid still: M.J. herself, concocting those photographs in her supremely eccentric fashion.
It's around 6:30 in the evening. Most everybody's long since left our rickety little building for the day, when suddenly this force of nature barges out of the musty stench of our darkroom. Hair flying, eyes ablaze with animal hunger, it stomps toward the office kitchen wearing M.J.'s photo-processing uniform: an ink-and-chemical-stained smock that once perhaps was white, with a big black patch in the center that proclaims, "NERD GIRL."
"What!" she cries in a high-pitched wail. "No coffee? No coffee? This is a moral outrage! A crime against Nature, a sin against humanity!"
It was no use to gently remind M.J. that most people don't consume large quantities of caffeine at 6:30 p.m. Better, you learned, to simply make soothing noises and assure her that, come to think of it, you would love nothing more than to help her prepare a good strong pot.
As often as not, you would know, this might be only her first or second mug of the day. M.J. often started work at the same time the sane employees were leaving. She simply does not do things the way sane people, or sane photographers, do. And that is the key to her particular form of genius.
Your normal newspaper photographer does not, for instance, spend hours shooting eight rolls of film of a crooked politician's face to make sure that she captures the essence of his being. She does not experiment so relentlessly that she shoots entire stories (no, entire issues) with a fish-eye lens or an ancient square-format camera. She does not fail to notice--until her boss reminds her--that he forgot to give her an annual raise 12 months ago.
Nor does your normal newspaper photographer completely absorb herself in every story. It's the reason that writers can never forget their first time collaborating with M.J. Afefe L. Tyehimba met her three years ago at an all-black cemetery located in, of all unlikely places, Cary. "I'd discovered that this 'for richer, not poorer' town actually had deep African-American roots," Afefe recalls, "and had written a column about my findings. When M.J. showed up with a bright warm smile and tons of equipment, I had no doubt that she'd take some good photos of the tombstones, some of which dated back to the 1800s.
"But that's not what drew her attention. Intently, she studied the grounds, the unkempt thickets where nameless graves were marked with moss-covered stones and red bricks. She made 'hmmm' noises while walking toward these uprooted trees from Hurricane Fran. And then her camera started clicking.
"Throughout the shoot, M.J. asked lots of questions about what I was seeing, what connection I felt to this place as an African American. It was hard to articulate. But when I saw the vivid photos, I knew M.J. had understood. She hadn't just captured the overall scene; she had absorbed the cemetery's distinctiveness and cultural significance."
As Barbara Solow says, "M.J. is one of the very few photographers in this biz who really thinks like a journalist."
Or like an artist. Every reader has a favorite M.J. image from the decade in which she defined The Independent's look. My own fave didn't run on a cover or in some big splashy spread. It ran fairly small, on the last page of "Jump!," Eric Bates' portrait of Chapel Hill's nationally known jump-rope squad, the Bouncing Bulldogs.
From behind, you see just the skinny legs and defined calves of young Kelvin Martin, one of the story's central characters. His rope dangles loose in front of him. That's all. Except for the way the light hits his legs, casting them progressively in shadow as your eye scans the shot. And the way Kelvin is resting his weight on his back foot, like he's afraid to go forward, while tentatively pushing ahead with his front foot.
I can close my eyes and get all weepy just remembering that picture. I don't know why. But M.J. does.
When we started to map out our strategy for covering the '96 elections, Eric Bates had only recently left his editor's post at the Durham-based Southern Exposure magazine to join our staff. The marquee event that year was a no-brainer: Sen. Jesse Helms' fourth re-election campaign, of course. But what in the world could a paper that had spent its whole life trying to get Jesse's goat possibly say about the man that wouldn't make readers yawn and go, "Yeah, yeah, same old Independent"?
I can't remember who first cooked up the idea, Eric or me. But I do know that everybody else looked like they'd just been shot by their best friend when Eric started running with it. Thousands of people got that same look when they saw the cover that kicked off our '96 campaign: a startled-looking Helms against a background of stars and stripes, with a huge headline screaming, "Why We LIKE Jesse."
Inside, Eric explained it better than I ever could: "Sure, Helms is mean, priggish, self-righteous, un-Christian, paranoid, fond of apartheid and not above cheating to win an election. ... But perhaps there is more to the widespread revulsion of Helms than a desire to repudiate everything he stands for. Perhaps the resentment among those to his left is tinged with another, less flattering feeling. Perhaps part of our anger is, to be frank, envy." And on he went, enumerating the Top 10 reasons why the Left wishes it had a Jesse of its own.
Eric dearly loves to administer a shock. Afefe L. Tyehimba sums it up when she calls him "a brilliant thinker with a head full of slashing, insightful arguments to refute what you've sworn is your final opinion on a subject. Eric can wear you slam out."
No kidding. From his neat-as-a-pin desk in our crowded little newsroom, Eric was forever tormenting either a co-worker or a source with his relentlessly clever debating skills. When he tackled a wrongdoer in print, you could practically see the shamefaced bad guy collapsing in guilty tears and crying out a confession.
The big guys were no match for Eric, try as they might. When he had thoroughly exposed the dangerous inefficiencies of the U.S. Corrections Corp., then under contract to open privately run prisons in North Carolina, the company was so alarmed that it dispatched a 17-page rebuttal to legislators and administrators in Raleigh. After he spent months attending classes for a two-part series on an alternative school in Durham where "troubled" kids were sent and largely forgotten, guess what popped up right away on the docket of the Durham School Board?
And we're absolutely certain this is pure coincidence, but it wasn't long after Eric documented the inequitable nature of the state's capital-punishment system in "The Death Lottery" when Gov. Jim Hunt halted an execution for the first time. Hunt's explanation? The condemned had been given a sentence that was inequitable.
Funny thing is, Eric can also wrench your heart when you least expect it. At the end of "Jump!," for instance, troubles have been mounting for the Bouncing Bulldogs jump-rope team as they finish their national competition in Orlando, Fla. Several parents are furious with Coach Ray Frederick Jr., who is so shaken that he makes a hasty exit and asks his wife to hug the team members goodbye. Kelvin Martin, self-consciously cool, stands aloof while the other Bouncing Bulldogs line up for their hugs. And then:
"The other kids are finished thanking Mrs. Frederick. She starts to walk away. Kelvin comes up and puts a hand on her shoulder. She turns, and he embraces her. People mill around them, talking, making plans. He holds her for what seems like a long time. It is his best trick, full of power, and his feet never leave the ground."
It's Eric's best trick, too.