Joan Johnson, long-time Tehachapi resident and author of the popular “Over the Back Fence” column published in the Tehachapi News for many years, died Monday, May 15, in Bellingham, Wash.
For more than 67 years Joan was married to Richard “Dick” Johnson, former co-publisher of the newspaper. He died Dec. 27, 2016.
Despite recovering from a fall and broken hip in February, she was determined to attend the wedding of her grandson Christopher Clow in Lynden, Wash., and was able to travel there in early March with her son and daughter-in-law, Scott and Pam Johnson, of Tehachapi.
She remained in Lynden with her daughter, Jana Clow, following the wedding, and had another fall and grew weaker. She was in hospice care in Bellingham at the time of her death but was able to celebrate her 87th birthday on April 6, with her great-grandchildren and other family members.
Born in Clifton, Tenn., to Charles and Bertha Peacock, she later moved with her family to Delano and was a student at Bakersfield College when she met Dick Johnson of Tehachapi in 1948. They married in August 1949, and after living in Bakersfield for about a year made their home in Tehachapi where they raised daughter Jana, born in 1955, and son Scott, born in 1963.
The Johnsons were awakened early on the morning of July 20, 1952, when an earthquake registering 7.3 on the Richter scale hit Tehachapi. As the 60th anniversary of the devastating quake approached in 2012, she recalled her brother-in-law Warren Johnson arriving at their home to let them know that the Tehachapi News office downtown had been wiped out.
But the newspaper survived, and Joan was among family members and others who kept it going, setting up a temporary office at the Scout Hut and using a mimeograph to reproduce copies until the newspaper set up a new office and press.
When the Tehachapi News converted to “cold type” in the 1960s, Joan adapted to the new technology, typing stories for the newspaper on a Justowriter.
Homemaker and historian
Johnson’s Southern roots were evident in her hospitality. A visitor to the Johnson home on A Street could count on being offered refreshment — iced tea and baked goods — and often departed with cookies or fresh-baked apple bread.
Her grace was legendary and if she couldn’t remember some detail from the past, no doubt she could produce a newspaper clipping from a storehouse in a back cupboard.
Among frequent visitors to the house on A Street was Jon Hammond, known to Tehachapi News readers for his Pen in Hand column.
“Joan was one of the most charming, appealing women I’ve ever met,” Hammond said when learning of her death this week. “I always thought first of Joan when someone would say that one of the best things about Tehachapi is the people who live here. I always thought of people like Joan Johnson.”
Joan retired from writing “Over the Back Fence” around the time that Bill Mead joined Dick and Warren Johnson as publishers of the News, but would occasionally make a contribution to the newspaper and could be counted upon to help write obituaries for family members and friends.
For those who read the News from the 1950s through most of the 1970s, “Over the Back Fence” was among the best-read features. Despite the column's popularity, Joan was always humble about her efforts. “Oh, that little thing,” she'd say, perhaps never realizing that she touched so many lives.
As Hammond wrote in a March 2007 column reminiscing about earlier days at the newspaper, “Joan Johnson has a lightning-fast gentle wit that has been the delight and amusement of her many Tehachapi friends for over half a century. When she heard that my mother was going to Peru to participate in an archeological dig, her immediate advice was, ‘Well, have fun Wini, but don’t dig up anything you wouldn’t be proud to bring home.’”
She might not have realized it when she and Dick wed, but being the wife of a newspaperman was like marrying the whole town. She balanced homemaking with attending events and helping out at community functions.
Like many Tehachapi mothers, Joan volunteered at her children’s schools and in various community endeavors. In retirement, she was active with the Tehachapi Heritage League murals project and as a volunteer at the thrift shop operated by the Guild of Tehachapi Hospital.
The Johnson family moved to Tehachapi in 1943 when Dick and Warren Johnson’s father, Walter, purchased the newspaper from Grove Wilson. The population at the time was barely 1,500. Walter and Sarah Johnson were from Minnesota but moved their family to Banning in the 1920s. Walter and his brother Harvey operated a newspaper there.
Dick and Warren Johnson were both working for their father and took over running the paper when he died in 1964, and remained active with the Tehachapi News until Bill and Betty Mead bought the paper in 1980. Dick and his son Scott continued operation of Johnson Printing for a number of years.
Warren Johnson died Jan. 6, 2013. His wife, Barbara, who helped with bookkeeping at the newspaper, died Aug. 17, 2013.
Survivors and services
A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday, June 3, at the Johnson home, 203 W. A St., Tehachapi.
Joan Johnson will be interred privately with her husband, Dick, at Bakersfield National Cemetery.
Survivors include her son Scott and daughter-in-law Pam of Tehachapi, daughter Jana Clow of Lynden, Wash., five grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, and numerous nieces and nephews.
Claudia Elliott is a former general manager and editor of Tehachapi News.