William McKinley “Bill” Johnson would have hated this.
He would have hated the attention and the photo of him on the front page of the newspaper.
As he often said, he felt he should be taking the pictures and not the subject of them.
But he deserves it and many volumes more.
The longtime Delta Democrat-Times photographer, more well-known simply as Bill, died Monday morning at the age of 62. He was fighting cancer for the second time.
Johnson was a feature at every event worth noting in Greenville from 1991 to 2019 in his role with the newspaper. He also was a part of numerous weddings as a photographer.
Johnson took photographs of everything from happy farmers with large produce to children laughing and smiling at school and a presidential candidate on a visit to the Delta. Those photographs adorn the wall in the newspaper office.
A military brat whose father served three tours in the Vietnam War, he was born in Greenville, but moved throughout the United States in his childhood and early adulthood. He attended grade school in North Carolina, Hawaii, and New York, and eventually graduated with a degree in photography, lithography and graphic arts from Fulton Montgomery Community College in Johnstown, New York.
He came to work at the DD-T in March of 1991 and became a full-time photographer later on that year in November. He became chief photographer and photo editor in January 1995. He was honored by the Mississippi Press Association in its Better Newspaper Contest in almost every year of his employment for excellency in photography.
When not on the job as a photographer, Johnson traveled the world with his son, Deyo Johnson.
“We rode camels and saw the Sphinx and Giza pyramids in Egypt,” Deyo Johnson said. “We saw the Cairo Museum and Luxor Museum and the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens.”
Deyo Johnson said his father had always dreamed of seeing Japan and in 2019 the trip became reality.
“We went for 11 days in April of 2019. We rode the bullet train, visited Buddhist and Shinto temples, saw Mt. Fuji. He loved the cherry blossoms,” Deyo Johnson said. “Between 2014 and 2019, he traveled to the Phillipines, Singapore, Malaysia, Jamaica, Mexico, Egypt and Japan.”
While he loved traveling throughout the world, his life included travels in the Delta as well.
“He loved the Mississippi Delta the most,” Deyo Johnson said. “Driving down the back roads and capturing the lived experiences of everyday people.”
Bill Johnson’s children, Lando, Kayo and Christi, had some of their father’s wanderlust as well. Lando lives in Las Vegas and Kayo in Los Angeles. Christi is the closest, making her home in Southaven. Deyo lives in Baltimore. Though a single father to Lando, Deyo, and Kayo, and shared custody of Christi with her mother, Janice Lewis, Bill Johnson was surrounded by a vast village that included his sister, Rosemary Williams, his parents, Guy and Angelen Lott, and Dorothy Johnson, and the late Ms. Corrine Goodson.
Bill Johnson was never one to worry about many things. He often considered himself “an easy dog to hunt with.”
“He would always say, ‘Do I look worried?’ though I know he would often worry, especially when it came to his kids,” Deyo Johnson said. “But he gave us wings to fly and never said we couldn’t do something. I guess some of us took to flying too well and flew far away.”
Bill Johnson’s contribution to the life of Greenville was recognized in 2017 by a proclamation from the office of Mayor Errick Simmons.
The proclamation reads: Mr. Johnson has been an amazing artist for three decades, capturing the hearts, culture and essence of the City of Greenville and we honor him today.
“The City of Greenville and the world has lost a giant in photography and reporting,” Simmons said Tuesday. “Mr. Johnson has been an amazing artist for three decades, capturing the hearts, culture and essence of the City of Greenville and we mourn him today. Bill Johnson and the pictures he captured over the years will secure his place in photography’s pantheon. To know him was to love him. The picture of Bill Johnson depicts someone who is serene but serious, laughable and lovable, history-taking but history-making.”
Others who worked with Johnson over the years spoke about him as well:
* Local photographer Charlie Lum: “As we passed each other at different events, Bill would always stop and take the time to speak to me. Bill was as friendly as anyone could be and will be missed by many. He gave a lot of his life to capturing people and helping them have memories in pictures. I will surely miss him as we had talked about his cancer and my wife’s cancer. Cancer is a horrible medical condition. He’s irreplaceable in the Delta. Thank you, Bill, for being my friend.”
* Local resident Betty Lynn Cameron: “Bill was the calm ‘in the storm’ many times through the years when I got anal making sure all was ready and all were present for photo sessions, Bill’s soft words, ‘Calm down, Betty Lynn, it’ll be all right, it’s just a picture. I got this.’ God bless you, dear friend. You are sorely missed.”
* Local resident volunteer Judy Long: “Bill was the best. He always came when I needed him, for personal, for school, for sports, for sorority, and for every Santa or Christmas thing we ever did. He would ‘dig up’ old pix or articles I needed and he never said no. I will miss Bill Johnson terribly, our whole community will miss him. I am proud to have called him a dear friend. God bless you, Bill Johnson, and may you now find eternal rest and peace with Jesus and the angels.”
* Former DD-T managing editor Sarah Ozbun: “I’m never at a loss for words, but when it comes to describing Bill Johnson, I don’t even know where to start. He was Greenville’s treasure. He was an icon. If there was an event, he was there. If there was a garden club planting session, he was there. He got tired of ribbon cuttings, but he turned his hat around and snapped the picture. If a sorority hosted a meeting, he was there. Your child’s first day? Yes, he was there. Their school play? Yes, there too. I would be surprised if there isn’t a Greenville family who doesn’t have a newspaper clipping of a photo of their child that Bill Johnson took. Bill captured some of Greenville’s biggest moments, both good and bad, from floods to Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church burning to the first Hot Tamale Festival and the opening of the Mississippi River Bridge. He was always there. “Bill never had a worry in the world, and if he did, he didn’t show it. He’d smile and say ‘yabadabadoo’ and that was the end of it.”
* Former DD-T reporter Kristina Norman: “I’m sad to hear about Mr. Bill. I’m glad to have known him while working at the paper. He always made each day better. He would always tell me when I wrote a good story or took a good photo. Most of all he was true person. He never pretended to be someone he wasn’t. You knew when he said something that he meant it. There will never be another Bill Johnson.”
* Local photographer John Keen: “Bill was as nice a guy, and fellow photographer, as I’ve met. Bill was always smiling and easy going. Most of the times we saw each other, we would be photographing some event together, me for a client and Bill for the DD-T and we would get in at least a short visit. I would usually try and get a picture of him while he was unaware and he’d look at me and shake his head. Once, I suggested we get a picture of the two of us. Then I told Bill, jokingly, I thought I might make that my new Facebook profile picture. I still remember the look on his face. Bill was a special person and seemed to be a friend to all. Bill Johnson will be missed by many whose lives he touched, including my own.”
* Greater Greenville Housing and Revitalization Association Chief Executive Officer Daniel Boggs: “When I think of Bill Johnson, I think of a quiet and humble individual. He would always tell me to let him know when something was happening, because he could ‘be anywhere in Greenville in five minutes or less.’ A few years back, he was nominated for the Hot Tamale King. He graciously declined. Bill said that he enjoyed watching the world from behind the lens, not in front. We are grateful for Bill’s tireless service to this community and for all of the memories that he captured for us.”
* Former DD-T managing editor Laura Smith: “He was Greenville’s consummate documentarian, and we all miss his smile at all our civic events. As a colleague he was always game for whatever wild assignment we had. When I didn’t have answers to his questions about an assignment, he’d say ‘I’ll figure it out,’ and he always did.”
Bill Johnson is survived by siblings; Valerie (Charles) Booker, Cynthia (Charles) Bryant, Gregory (Helen) Bennett, Rosemary (Louis) Williams, Michael Lott, Clarence (Sheila) Lott, Deletrece Lott, Bruce (Edna) Johnson, Brice Johnson, Berkeley Johnson and Gregory (Helen) Bennett; five grandchildren; Siaki, Kaen, Azalea, Mara and Karter; a host of nieces and nephews, cousins and friends.
Funeral arrangements are pending with Redmon Funeral Home and will be posted at ddtonline.com when complete.