Note to readers: Barry Schraders DeKalb
County Life column will appear every other Tuesday.
Many longtime Sycamore residents will remember the famous
New York Times writer and editor who married a local girl named
Sarah Sally Fulton, whose father, William Fulton,
was a justice on the Illinois Supreme Court.
Probably a lot fewer residents today know the name Dirk Johnson,
another journalist who spent much of his career with the New
York Times, graduating from Sycamore High School in 1976, followed
by earning a degree from the University of Wisconsin and then
many years reporting for the Times in various locations.
First, a little about James Scotty Reston,
who met his future wife, Sally Fulton, at the University of Illinois,
which they both attended. He went on to become a nationally-
known journalist for the New York Times, winner of two Pulitzer
Prizes, nationally-syndicated columnist and executive editor
of the paper over the years. Ill write more about him in
a future column.
This week I want to highlight the ongoing career of Dirk
Johnson, a local product who continues to write for the news
media as well as authoring books.
Dirk Johnson spends hours at his laptop on the kitchen
counter of his Somonauk Street house in Sycamore that he has
owned since 1996, preferring to report and write from home instead
of a high-rise office in downtown Chicago. (Schrader photo)
His recent project as a co-author with Robert Carr is titled
Through the Fires: An American Business Story. It
heralds the life of Carr, who overcame adversity early in life
to start up a credit card processing business that made millions,
only to lose it through a data breach, then make a remarkable
comeback. He also established the Give Something Back Foundation
to help deserving students get an education. It is more than
just a success story, but an inspiring guide for would-be entrepreneurs
on how to remain ethical and honest in their chosen profession.
This was Johnsons first joint book project, but he
has two earlier titles to his credit. The first one came about
when he was working in the Denver news bureau for the Times and
was assigned a rodeo story.
Never having been to one before, he went behind the scenes to
talk with cowboys and learned of their tough lives on the road.
That sparked an idea for a true-life tale titled Biting
the Dust: The Wild Ride and Dark Romance of the Rodeo Cowboy
in the American West.
His second book was also generated by a story assignment,
this time back in the Times Chicago bureau where he covered
the harrowing methamphetamine drugs and meth lab problems. That
book is named Meth: Americas Home-Cooked Menace.
Once he had spent a second stint with the Times for six
years in Chicago, they wanted to move him elsewhere, but after
putting down roots for his family with four youngsters in Sycamore
schools, he instead accepted a job offer as Chicago News Bureau
Chief for Newsweek, until it was shuttered in 2006.
Although his kids have moved on to college, one now at
Columbia Law School, another in grad school at Columbia, the
third at Harvard and the youngest attending his alma mater at
the University of Wisconsin, Johnson prefers to stay put in Sycamore
where he writes from home, utilizing his laptop on the dining
room table or kitchen counter. He freelances for the Times now,
plus takes other assignments from magazines like Chicago.
Johnson has also become a professional speechwriter for
corporate America. In addition to that, he spent seven years
as a part-time Writer in Residence at NIU. That included speaking
for the university at other colleges, conferences, and serving
on the board of the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association.
He said his philosophy about Sycamore is similar to something
Reston wrote many years back. This community is a barometer of
middle America and provides a good sounding board for what people
are thinking. He had even corresponded briefly with Reston about
their Sycamore ties before Restons retirement and death
at age 86 in 1995.
Johnsons next project? A book is in the making with
a working title Shackled, about the exorbitant college
student loan debt and how it impacts students lives for
decades in the future.