Legendary local news anchor Bruce Johnson dies at age 71 For decades, Bruce Johnson's voice could be heard emanating from TV sets around the Washington region, delivering the day's news with both gravitas and humor.
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Legendary local news anchor Bruce Johnson dies at age 71

Bruce Johnson, pictured on the mural outside Ben's Chili Bowl on U St. NW. The mural by Aniekan Udofia pays homage to famous Black Americans, including Barack Obama and Chuck Brown. Jacob Fenston /DCist/WAMU hide caption

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Jacob Fenston /DCist/WAMU

For decades, Bruce Johnson's voice could be heard emanating from TV sets around the Washington region, delivering the day's news with both gravitas and humor. Johnson, who spent 44 years at local CBS affiliate WUSA9, died of heart failure Sunday morning, according to the station.

Johnson was mourned on-air and online by many former colleagues, local officials, and residents.

"Bruce was a friend, he was a mentor to so many of us," said anchor Leon Harris during a newscast on competitor NBC4. "He knew D.C. like the back of his hand and D.C. sure knew him."

"Like many Washingtonians, he's been a part of my life since I was a little girl, delivering the news and giving voice to DC residents," wrote Mayor Muriel Bowser on Twitter. "I'm heartbroken. Rest In Heaven."

Johnson started as a reporter at the station in 1976, and, over the years, covered many of the most important — and strangest — episodes in the city's modern history. He was a cub reporter when Hanafi Muslims stormed what is now the Wilson Building in 1977, shooting and wounding Marion Barry and killing a reporter, Maurice Williams. Johnson was just behind Williams heading into the building under siege.

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"As the elevator door opened, a Hanafi Muslim turned, a shotgun blast, and he shot Maurice," Johnson later recalled witnessing.

Johnson covered Barry's rise and fall, doggedly pressing the mayor on his failings, but also becoming a friend. "I'd like to thank Marion Barry for all the overtime," Johnson joked, speaking at Barry's funeral in 2014. "It enabled us to send our kids to school, college, get a mortgage, put a little money in the bank."

"He's really part of the fabric of the city's history," said Catherine Snyder, who worked with Johnson at WUSA9 off and on starting in the early 1990s. "He really had a deep knowledge of where the city has been and where it was going," Snyder said in an interview with DCist/WAMU.

Johnson was born and raised in Louisville, Ky. In his recent memoir, Johnson wrote about growing up in a poor Black family in the South. "We were public housing tenants surrounded by better off Black folk in Louisville's segregated west end," Johnson wrote. In the book, he recalled a childhood of learning to swim by swinging off tree branches into a river polluted by a nearby rubber factory. And he wrote about the domestic violence he and his siblings witnessed as their stepfather struggled with alcoholism.

Johnson also wrote of the racism he endured as a young Black reporter in mostly-white newsrooms, and of his work to use journalism to make the world a better place.

"It was never my intent to be just an average reporter collecting a paycheck: I wanted to be a difference-maker," wrote Johnson.

"The thing I recall most about Bruce is how hard-driving a reporter he was," said Kojo Nnamdi, a longtime WAMU host, in an interview with WAMU/DCist. "He also had a deep interest in life in the Black community and went where others dared not to go in the African-American community, looking for stories of people facing issues that the general public may not be familiar with. He found those people and he found those stories and he cared about those people and he cared about those stories," Nnamdi said.

As for the eulogies pouring in from elected officials, Nnamdi said that many local politicians appreciated Johnson for his authenticity, even though his coverage could be tough. "They may not have been pleased with his reporting, but they always liked Bruce because he was always genuine," Nnamdi said.

Snyder said she was always impressed with Johnson's passion and courage. "He took great care with the stories he told, and he really wanted to to dig a little deeper on each one. It was never just a story about a crime. It was a story about the people who are impacted by it," she said.

Johnson was also a great mentor to many younger journalists in the newsroom, Snyder said.

Johnson had health troubles in the past. In 1992, he suffered a sudden heart attack while on assignment covering the city's summer jobs program. "You might want to stop at GW Hospital on the way back," he later recalled telling his cameraman.

In 2018, he took a break from anchoring to undergo chemotherapy.

"I have cancer," he said while wrapping up a newscast. "A week ago my biopsy came back and I tested positive for non-Hodgkins lymphoma," Johnson said, tearing up on camera.

"I know Bruce had health challenges over the years, but he has always dealt with them in such a careful way that I thought he was doing really well at this point," Nnamdi said. Nnamdi recalled frequently seeing Johnson running in Rock Creek Park, and later in life, cycling or walking.

Johnson retired from WUSA9 at the end of 2020.

"Journalists don't retire, really. They just don't go to work at the same place," he said, announcing the news. Since then, he has posted frequent photos of himself relaxing on the beach, riding a bike, and promoting his book, "Surviving Deep Waters."

In the book, he pays tribute to those who came before him. "My story has never been just about me: this African American has been carrying the aspirations of a mother, a grandmother and entire communities of Black folk. They had done the heavy lifting long before I was born."

Johnson is survived by his wife Lori, as well as three children and three grandsons, according to WUSA9.

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