July 13 - July 19, 1995

Swede Screed

Smith Tramps The Dirt Down.

B y  J e f f  S m i t h 


THIS IS MY last request. Not the last thing I'll ever ask for, of that you may be sure, but my last request as in "last request," as in The condemned man ate a hearty meal of hog jowels and otter haunches, as per his last request. He declined the traditional postprandial cigarette on health grounds.

So. My last request is that The Arizona Daily Star not memorialize me in an editorial, and that the Star and any other news organ that notes my passing in the general context of notes and comment, should keep it brief. It was among the first truisms of the trade taught me as a cub reporter that the longer the retirement story, the more certain one could be that the subject left under a cloud; and the longer the obituary, the less good there was to say about the departed.

So I noted with interest (another journalistic usage I picked up early) the elegy to Swede Johnson in last Thursday's Star, and the accompanying honorific on the editorial page, which ended with the following paragraph:

"But when the smoke cleared on Swede Johnson, he did indeed stand there like A Mountain--solid and familiar, a man whose friends are outnumbered only by those who never got a chance to meet him."


In the spirit of the late, lamented Leyla Cattan, whose Spanish-language column has been dropped by the Star, here is the English translation:

More people didn't know Swede Johnson than liked him.

And how many people can you say that about, huh? I'd say, roughly, all of them. Like I said at the outset, when they start troweling it on thick you can be pretty sure they're trying to cover up the ugly underneath. Gee, Marvin D. "Swede" Johnson, ugly underneath? He was homely enough on the surface.

But yes, there was a side of Swede Johnson that did not flatter our species. For all the smarmy sentiment expressed in the Star and elsewhere in journalistic circles--I even caught a TV story on his death from the Denver NBC affiliate--the man was a mean-spirited, narrow-minded and spiteful sonofabitch to people who disagreed with his deep-rooted notions of right and wrong, especially if they were outside the centers of political and social power and influence. You may think it chickenshit of me to throw darts at the memory of one lately departed, and I expect his friends and family in these parts will be offended, but frankly the homespun holy man portrayed in the mainstream press is all but unrecognizable to those of us who had to deal with Swede Johnson, the hit-man for Richard Harvill, at the University of Arizona during the late '60s.

And I reckon if you could ask Swede himself, he'd rather be remembered as a bit of a flesh-and-blood asshole than a paper saint.

Like another public figure of that era, Richard Nixon, Swede Johnson's sins have been ignored by a press that is dooming us to repeat the mistakes of history by helping us forget them. And it's no coincidence that the context is the same. The late '60s were a time of social and ethical upheaval in America over the Vietnam war. Richard Nixon tried first to ignore, then to silence, then to jail youthful protesters against the war, and Swede Johnson followed suit, at the urging of then-UA President Richard Harvill, the George Corly Wallace of college administrators.

But Swede didn't need much goosing when it came to knocking heads among the student body. When students gathered and marched to express their disagreement and distaste for the war and for the UA's ROTC training of young men to go fight that war, Swede saw red--a little like the bulls that figured in his agricultural childhood in Willcox, and a little like Dick Nixon and Joe McCarthy.

I graduated from the UA in 1968; and a couple of years later when students were marching and chanting and mildly acting-up, I was a reporter for The Arizona Daily Star, covering the story. I was there, notebook in hand, when Swede led the charge of the campus cops against the crowd of students. I was there when somebody chunked a rock through the window of the Jack-in-the-Box at Park and Speedway. I stood with the other reporters and photogs, drinking free coffee from Jack, smoking Winstons and scribbling notes, while the cops lobbed tear-gas cannisters at the kids.

It was a surreal scene: cops in gas masks running every which way, trying to get a good swing with a billy club at a student; kids crying, screaming, covering their faces with shirts and bare hands, running like hell to escape the clubs and the gas...and in the midst of it all, unfazed by the gas because it was intended for us, the press, inhaling tobacco smoke and tear gas in equal measure...and Swede Johnson, dark suit and wingtips, chasing boys and girls at a dead run, swearing, swinging, mad clear through. He didn't have a gas mask either. Didn't need one.

That's the essential Swede Johnson I remember: Richard Harvill's enforcer. Small wonder Swede never got to be president. True, meanness is a job requirement, but meanness of a more Mandarin stripe. Even Harvill had subtlety enough to recognize that, which was what he kept Johnson around for.

After a failed attempt at seizing the top floor of the administration building, Swede left the UA for a run at running a college in New Mexico. He made another doomed try at the UA presidency when Henry "Hooters" Koffler wound up with the job. Then Johnson went to Colorado and worked selling image for the Coors Brewing Company. Another friend of the environment, the minorities, the working class.

Well hell, the man's dead and I'm not, which puts me one up. I guess I ought to give a nod to a fallen adversary: Swede cost me at least one pretty good job opportunity in my life. He never much liked the way the Star covered campus riots back then, and he never forgot the names and faces of those who did the reporting.

I hope my enemies have something to remember about me when I'm gone. And I hope it makes more sense than that editorial in the Star.

...when the smoke cleared on Swede Johnson...

I checked back to the lead of the piece and it alluded to a comment attributed to Mo Udall. Something about how Swede Johnson was like A Mountain because "He's always been there when the dust clears away." Dust, smoke, mountains.

Leyla, could you translate this for us?

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July 13 - July 19, 1995

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