Bill Johnson always told me, "Life is fleeting." When I sat down at my desk Tuesday morning, I looked at the photograph of Bill resting on my desk and cried.
The picture is of Bill holding my daughter, Laura, when she was not even a year old. He’s sitting in his chair at what was his desk at the Delta Democrat-Times for nearly 30 years.
As my daughter got older, she knew that’s where Bill sat. On the days she came with me to work, his desk was always the first to visit in the newsroom.
That’s the way it was at work.
The first words Keith Williams, DD-T’s marketing director, would say when he walked in at 8 a.m. was, “Million Dollar Bill!”
Everyone wanted to say hello to Bill first. He was someone you wanted to speak to because he was easy to talk to.
Bill had a genuine love for people, and it didn’t matter who. When you’re the sole photographer of a daily paper for nearly three decades, you get to know people in every social circle.
Bill didn’t care what a person’s status was in life. He didn’t pay attention to what clothes you wore, what kind of house you lived in or what kind of car you drove. As long as you were genuine and kind, you were good people in his eyes.
I knew Bill personally for nine years and worked with him full-time his last five years at the DD-T. The more I got to know him, the more I admired him and grew to view him as a father figure in my life.
I didn’t have my own father to vent to or get advice from, so I often turned to Bill. No matter what was going on in my life, how stressed I was feeling at work, Bill was always there to lend a listening ear and offer his advice and wisdom.
“Don’t worry so much,” he always said. “The paper is going to print no matter what, just like it did yesterday and just like it will tomorrow.”
Of course, he was right.
I told him he was many times the only thing keeping me sane in the newsroom and he would say, “It’s just me, Catherine.”
“Just” Bill was exactly what I needed.
He wasn’t the type of person who liked to sit around for long, he enjoyed staying busy. He said he stayed thin because he was like a hummingbird, always moving from one place to the next, eating a little here and there.
Bill was the type of person you could have a frank conversation with. He didn’t like to hear people complain about being “held back” in life.
“The only person capable of holding you back is you,” he often said.
Bill believed in working hard and earning an honest living. Excuses were not acceptable. He regularly said we are all responsible for our lives and how they turn out.
“Get off your lazy butt and do something,” he would say.
I will also miss getting directions from him.
I believe Bill knew the streets of Greenville better than anyone, even better than the police and firemen.
After years of running back and forth to various social events, city meetings, school functions and more, Bill learned every shortcut and could get anywhere in just a few minutes.
When I was pregnant, he would sometimes take me on a drive to get lunch and tell me funny and fascinating stories of his time living in Hawaii and New York and traveling around the world with his son.
This past year was a tough one for Bill as he battled pancreatic cancer. His dear son, Deyo, was with him every step of the way as they traveled back and forth from Greenville to Atlanta every week for his treatments.
Throughout all the chemo and radiation treatments, Bill never lost his optimistic spirit. Whenever we spoke, he said, “I’m twice as good as yesterday and I’ll be twice as much tomorrow.”
Bill didn’t like sympathy or much attention.
He had been offered the role of grand marshal for Greenville’s Christmas Parade and Hot Tamale King for the Delta Hot Tamale Festival, both of which he turned down. I tried convincing him to accept but he still refused, saying, “I’m supposed to be the guy behind the camera, not in front of it.”
Talk about incredible character and humility.
The last time I spoke to Bill was a few weeks before he died. He told me how grateful he was for his children and he was hoping to be cancer free soon.
His very last words to me were, “Still blessed and a believer. Don’t ever let anyone tell you different. Believe in something or fall for anything.”
I’m going to try my best to live by your words, Bill.
A big Star Wars fan, which many people may not have known about him, I can picture Bill now, pointing his finger at me and saying, “Do or do not. There is no try.”
Catherine Kirk is managing editor of the Delta Democrat-Times. She can be reached at email@example.com.