Jerry Johnston was prepared to interview himself for this profile. As the book editor for the Deseret News, the man has become adept at summarizing the human condition, wrapping up a personality in a paragraph. And as one of our most popular columnists, he's used to turning his analytical skills on himself.
"You'll want to know where I was born," he said. "Brigham City. Well actually I was born in Logan, so just say I was raised in Brigham. I have type O positive blood.""I'm writing this," I said. "Stop being so bossy."
He continued, "Education: B.A. in Spanish from Utah State and an M.A. in Spanish from the University of New Mexico.
"My theory of writing is this: The most interesting part of all stories are the people and the most interesting part of the people are their emotions."
By this time I'd given up. He can think of better questions, faster, than I can. "Do you want my favorite authors?" he inquired. "Twain, Chekov, William Stafford and local poet Leslie Norris. Norris has a small focus, is an incredible observer, and he never asks you to take sides with him against people."
Good quotes, all. But as Jerry Johnston himself explained to me, "This isn't going to give our readers any insight into me that they don't already have if they read my column."
So, OK, Johnston. I'll do it by myself. Here's what I know about my subject, before I even sat down to interview him: Jerry Johnston is a whole lot goofier and a whole lot smarter than our readers really know.
Many co-workers say he's one of the paper's best writers. "Jerry has an amazing knowledge of authors," said one. Another said, "When I was a journalism student I used to read his columns and want to be like him. I still do."
And another, "He's never had a journalism class yet he's a great writer in the tradition of journalists of the 1930s: a well-educated, many-faceted person, versed in different cultures."
No one would tell him any of this, however. He teases us too much for us to be sincerely kind or complimentary to him. Unless he were dying. Or maybe just crying. Real hard.
He's been a very busy bachelor. ("I only wish I had half as much fun as everyone thinks I'm having," he says.) But a more mature Johnston may emerge. ("There's something kind of sad about a 40-year-old playboy," he admitted as he celebrated his last birthday.) He's a sweet father to his son, Ian. ("Yeah, I'm good with kids and bad with money.") He's a good baseball player.
He's an entertaining guy, at his most charming when he's poking fun at himself. "Never marry a man who doesn't have the self-confidence to sing in the office," he announced to some single female coworkers, as he began to warble, "We're having a heat wave, a tropical heat wave. . ."
He knows all kinds of people, talks to them, and listens to what they say: waitresses, cab drivers, poets, athletes, country singers.
"He's an incurable romantic," said a co-worker. And he is. With words and ideas more than women, actually. I like to think of him as he was when he was a 10-year-old small-town boy. He's taller now and has a beard, but his was a Mark Twain childhood, and the boy lingers in the man.
He formed a club when he was a boy and, as president, led a street patrol looking for bullies and window peekers. ("We never found any.") Their song was one of his first literary creations. "We fight and fight to keep the peace. . .For we are like the real police. . .And we never fail. . .So let us hail. . .The Fighting Boys of Brigham."