Dick Johnson, longtime Chicago TV news anchor for NBC, ABC stations, has died at 66

He’d posted March 19 on Facebook from northern Michigan that concerns about the spread of the “coronavirus, my age and a respiratory issue prompted my doctors to send me packing.”

SHARE Dick Johnson, longtime Chicago TV news anchor for NBC, ABC stations, has died at 66
NBC 5 anchor and reporter Dick Johnson.

NBC 5 anchor and reporter Dick Johnson.


Veteran NBC 5 anchor Dick Johnson, a trusted voice in Chicago TV news, died Tuesday at 66.

“I am stunned to tell you all that Dick Johnson passed away this morning,” Frank Whittaker, the station manager and vice president of news, told NBC 5’s staff Tuesday. “Dick was being treated at a hospital in northern Michigan the last several days for complications related to a respiratory condition. Because of that condition, Dick had gone to northern Michigan in early March after the advent of COVID-19.

“He loved working here and he exuded that,” Whittaker told the Sun-Times. “He couldn’t wait to get back and cover the big story.”

Johnson had pulmonary fibrosis, according to an NBC video tribute.

Carol Marin, political editor for NBC 5 and a correspondent for WTTW-Channel 11’s “Chicago Tonight,” said on Twitter that Johnson was “the best kind of newsman. Smart, thorough, nimble when deadlines were crashing around him. No cliches. Just facts, fairness and great writing. And he was funny!”

In a business in which deadlines and ratings pressures can erode the niceties, he was known for being a team player and taking the time to say thank you. Johnson often extended himself to fledgling reporters.

Whittaker said countless NBC staffers told him Johnson offered them behind-the-scenes guidance and support.

“Our newsroom is heartbroken,” NBC 5 political reporter Mary Ann Ahern tweeted. “Dick Johnson loved it all — curious, fantastic storyteller and a kind colleague. There are tears for his loss, knowing Dick was the real deal; mentor to so many, a news soldier.”

“When I got to channel 5 in 2011, I was completely green,” tweeted Laurence Holmes, a sports-talk host at 670 The Score. “Dick Johnson went out of his way to make me feel welcomed. He was a brilliant journalist. He was a wonderfully generous man. He was my friend and I will miss him very much.”

NBC veteran Art Norman praised Johnson for his incisive reporting on Chicago’s African American neighborhoods.

“He was very comfortable in the black community,” Norman said, adding that when his colleague was reporting on the street, neighborhood residents sometimes referred to him as “Brother Johnson.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot tweeted condolences from her family: “Amy and I are saddened to learn of Dick Johnson’s passing. Dick was always a true gentlemen and professional. His passion for journalism and the craft of a great story was unmatched. “

“Chicago has lost a journalism giant,” ABC 7 reporter Rob Elgas said on Twitter.

“Dick was one of the best in the business,” former WBBM-AM morning anchor Felicia Middlebrooks tweeted. “A real gentleman.”

Johnson had been part of a Peabody Award-winning reporting team with Marin at the Chicago NBC station and also was honored with national Emmys and a DuPont-Columbia award for his work.

On March 19, he posted an explanation on Facebook for being off the air and in northern Michigan, a region he loved: “My apologies for disappearing from NBC Chicago so suddenly. Like so many, I had no other choice. The Coronavirus, my age and a respiratory issue prompted my doctors to send me packing. So here we are, settled in ‘up north’ and riding this out as safely as possible.”

Asked whether the coronavirus was a factor in his death, Whittaker said, “I don’t believe that was the issue here. He had this lung issue. He had an infection at the end.”

Johnson, who joined NBC in 2002, most recently co-anchored WMAQ-Channel 5’s weekend evening news shows. He moved there from WLS-Channel 7, where he’d been an anchor and reporter for 20 years.

“He had an incredible work ethic,” ABC 7 veteran Paul Meincke said. Despite grueling early hours, Johnson “chose the morning gig at 7 before he went to 5.”

Even when anchoring, “He’d stick around and somehow find a way to play a role” in the reporting of big stories, according to Meincke, who also praised his thorough research and preparation. After the Cook County state’s attorney’s office dropped charges against actor Jussie Smollett — who’d reported he’d been the target of a hate crime — Johnson did a wide-ranging interview with a representative of the prosecutor’s office.

Dick Johnson during his time at WLS-Channel 7.

Dick Johnson during his time at WLS-Channel 7.


“His questions were just spot on,” Meincke said. “It was 15 minutes of grueling, honest, really good questioning from Dick. He prepared himself very well. He did his homework.”

When he walked in the newsroom each day, assignment editors and executive producers knew they could count on his reporting to deepen developing stories. “He could turn something out of nothing,” said NBC 5 reporter Phil Rogers.

Even while doggedly focused on a story, “He was never in a bad mood,” Rogers said. “He was always the most jovial guy in the newsroom.”

To reflect his team spirit after moving to Channel 5, Rogers said, Johnson got a new phone number and license plate, changing them to make sure they included the number “5.”

NBC said Johnson “was on board Air Force Two with then-Vice President George H.W. Bush during the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan.”

Other major stories he covered included the release of American hostages held by Iran, the Ethiopian famine and the case of serial killer Andrew Cunanan, whose victims included fashion designer Gianni Versace and Chicago real estate developer Lee Miglin.

Also, according to the NBC station, “Dick broke the story of the ‘Great Loop Flood.’ ”

Johnson appeared in the movie “Barbershop 2” and on the NBC TV show “Chicago Fire.”

He received a political science degree from DePauw University, where he worked as news director of the college radio station WGRE.

Johnson is survived by his wife Lauren, three children and two grandchildren.

Lauren and Dick Johnson.

Lauren and Dick Johnson.


Contributing: Madeline Kenney

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