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125 Years of Women at Auburn: Rheta Grimsley Johnson

In celebrating 125 years of women at Auburn, the university welcomed Award-winning author and columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson, a class of 1977 graduate.

As a junior at Robert E. Lee High School in Montgomery, Alabama, Johnson already knew she wanted to attend Auburn University and be editor of the school newspaper, “The Auburn Plainsman.” Her older sister, Joann, attended Auburn and brought back a stack of the newspapers when she came home for the Thanksgiving break.

“To my delight, the editor that year was a beautiful young woman, and feisty as they come, Beverly Bradford. She became my instant hero,” Johnson said. “That’s it, I thought. I’ll be another sassy female editor of The Auburn Plainsman.”

In the eighth grade Johnson had made up her mind that a journalist is what she would be. Her very first gig? Covering a girls volleyball game for the Goodwinn Jr. High Smokesignals newspaper. Fast forward a few years to Johnson leaving for college. She told her mother “I [am] going to study journalism and I [am] going to be a newspaper reporter. She cried. I told my dad, and he said to be the best journalist.”

Johnson paid homage to the editor of her first column at the Plainsman, Tom Botsford. “He was kind, he would say kind things to you,” she said. “It wasn’t the greatest bit of journalism ever, but Tom walked me through it, edited it, he actually ran it. He said critical things in a kind way. That is my definition of a perfect editor.”

Johnson wrote on many topics in her blooming years as a reporter. The most noted fad might be her piece on the streaking outbreak on college campuses. The Plainsman received a tip that there would be a streaker at the Haley Center. Even though Johnson did not actually attend the event, “I got more credit and blame than I deserved,” she said. “I was glad my parents lived a whole world away in Montgomery.”

Next came her campaign to be Plainsman editor. Most run unopposed, but that was not the case for Johnson. She was up against two men, both highly qualified. Johnson went on be editor and to receive the National Pacemaker Award while on the Plainsman team. After graduating in 1977, “I left Auburn with stars in my eyes, $10,000 in my pocket, a U-haul on the back of a VW van, my new husband, Jimmy, and my good friend David Nordance,” she said. “And we all had decided we could start a weekly newspaper.”

The trio headed to St. Simons, Georgia with seed money from Miller Clines of the Auburn-Opelika News. Within two weeks, the first issue of the St. Simons Sun was released. Unfortunately, 26 weeks later, the seed money ran out, and so did the VW van. “It was about two years until I could face a shrimp again,” said Johnson.

“The thing about journalism that’s wonderful is its democracy. I’ve been places, talked to people and met people I had no business talking to…I’ve talked to the chaplain at the Ku Klux Klan, a Georgia beauty queen and I’ve watched the exhuming of a dozen bodies,” she said. “I’ve been to an alligator’s funeral.”

Johnson’s niece, Chelsea, has served as a muse for characters of many stories she writes. Driving through Birmingham with Chelsea in the passenger seat, Johnson wanted to show her the Vulcan. Ferociously pointing out the window, Johnson said, “Look up! Look up! We are in Birmingham!”

Chelsea replied, “I know, I know. The city where baby Jesus was born.”

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