Of the many bosses I have had — in journalism and the military (both active Army and Florida Army National Guard) — Malcolm Johnson was arguably the most colorful.
He was executive editor of The Tallahassee Democrat, where I worked for my final three years at Florida State University. He was a respected community leader and one of the most knowledgeable journalists ever to cover Florida’s state government.
He is one of the few bosses I could not bring myself to address by his first name. (My immediate supervisor was Mike Beaudoin, who was city editor.)
It was not until several years after graduating that I could bring myself to assume that degree of familiarity.
In my freshman year, I held a student assistant job at the FSU News Bureau which paid 75 cents an hour. It is the only job I ever held in which I failed to earn what they paid me.
At the end of my freshman year, I got a job at the Tallahassee Democrat as police reporter paying a buck an hour — the minimum wage back then — and I got a 25 percent pay raise when the minimum wage went to $1.25. And I earned every cent until the day I graduated three years later.
I started out working three hours on weekdays, plus Saturdays from mid-afternoon to midnight. By the time I graduated, I was working 44-plus hours a week while carrying a full academic load.
One of my most vivid memories was the day Malcolm told me that a full-time reporter who covered courts and county commission had resigned, and I was being promoted to take his place.
“Thanks, Mr. Johnson,” I replied, “but I’ve been police reporter for a year now and I really don’t consider that to be a promotion.”
“That’s fine,” he said, “You can do his job and yours.”
And I did.
I learned a lot working for Malcolm, including never to turn down a promotion without finding out what the alternative was.
He wrote a Sunday column, appropriately called “I Declare!” Malcolm had opinions on many subjects, and he freely declared them each week.
Instead of a luxury sedan, Malcolm drove a Jeep; it was part of his persona.
I always made it a point to visit him on my infrequent visits to Tallahassee in the years following my graduation.
On one visit, he told me about his latest project: encouraging developers to allow the public to go onto their undeveloped property and dig up native flora, from bushes to small trees, for transplant to their own yards.
He was on hand to give advice on what species were most likely to survive transplanting.
He gave me a shoulder patch that he awarded to each person who participated in one of his plant digs.
It has a drawing of a green hand grasping a limp flower at its center, surrounded by the words: “Upsy-Daisy Plant Uplift Society; The Intrepid Trespassers.”
He told me that in exchange for the patch, I was to organize at least one plant dig in Central Florida. I found that patch a few weeks ago, and realized that I never fulfilled his assignment.
So, I hereby pass along the idea to any garden club or landscaping class that would like to pursue it. In addition to undeveloped residential property, unmined or mined-over phosphate land might offer possibilities.
But only with the property owner’s permission, okay?
(S. L. Frisbie is retired. In the years following his graduation from college and his tenure at the Tallahassee Democrat, he discovered that whenever he spoke the words “I used to work at the Tallahassee Democrat” at a Florida Press Assn. meeting, the room would grow quiet momentarily, followed by a chorus of voices declaring: “So did I.”)