Jim Johnston was an Elvis fan. Knowing this, our chief sound engineer, Barry Spillman, made it his mission to work some Elvis music into the show whenever possible. You could hear it if you listened closely, slipping in and out of the background like an extra in “King Creole.” It was only appropriate, then, that if Jim had to leave us, it happened on the King’s birthday. As much as we are saddened by his loss, it somehow fits in a cosmic kind of way. Long live the King.
I sometimes passed Jim in the hallways and occasionally interviewed him on Land Line Now. He always had a wink and smile and more than a few words of wisdom. We didn’t use Jim often on the show, but when we did we called it “bringing out the big guns.” He weighed in when it mattered most but was otherwise content to stand back and let us do the jobs he hired us to do.
And when he did weigh in you can bet everybody out there listening knew it. When he spoke it always seemed like he was two or three steps ahead of everybody else in the room. That’s probably because more often than not, he was. I like to imagine the show playing in truck stops and truck cabs across the country and when his voice came through the speakers everything else just stopped. “Shh. Listen. Big Jim’s talking.”
We know he liked the work we did with the show, but there were also those rare occasions when we did something he wasn’t crazy about, and he was never shy about letting us know. He never yelled or got angry. It wasn’t his way. He’d just smile that smile of his and say “Maybe we shouldn’t do that anymore.” And we didn’t. There was no doubt that when Jim spoke, we listened.
So, too, did the listeners to our show. And the politicians in Washington. And the bad brokers and shady trucking companies and anyone else who sought to do wrong to truck drivers. His voice echoed loud and clear through the last 45 years of the trucking industry for all to hear.
It’s silent now, but the echoes are still there. It echoes through the Association he helped build from a bunch of guys at a truck stop to more than 160,000 members. It echoes through the changes he helped engineer in the trucking industry – fighting for the rights of truckers through the courts and the legislature. And it echoes through each and every employee of OOIDA who continues to work and to fight to keep that mission alive every single day.
When I first came to OOIDA, we were in the very early stages of starting the radio show. During one of those meetings as we tried to determine the image of the Association and the best way to put it out over the air, someone asked how our members saw Jim Johnston. I don’t remember who said it, but there was only one answer: John Wayne.
I always thought of that when I’d see him in the hallways with his blue jeans, white hair and blue shirt. He had that swagger. He had that true grit. He was one of the last great American cowboys.
John Wayne once said “A man ought to do what he thinks is right,” and that’s just what Jim did every day of his life. And you can rest assured that all of us here at Land Line Now, Land Line Magazine and all of OOIDA will do our damnedest to live up to that.
It’s what Jim would have wanted. And like the old song says, you don’t mess around with Jim.