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Writing isn't history for former editor

When Fred Johnson left his job as sports editor in 1983 at the South Washington County Bulletin after 13 years, he just kept on writing, but not about high school basketball.

"Even ahead of sports, my first love is history," said Johnson, at the Cottage Grove home that he shares with wife, Diane, who was a Bulletin cartoonist for many years.

"Leaving the Bulletin gave me more time to write," he said.

Even while working full time as a teacher and administrator in St. Paul schools, Johnson (who didn't retire until seven years ago) wrote numerous articles for state and county historic publications and published 11 books.

His first book, "The Sea Wing Disaster," about a steamboat accident that killed 98 people on Lake Pepin, is about to go into its third printing.

His latest book, commissioned by the City of Richfield and published this year, is "Richfield, Minnesota's Oldest Suburb."

"I've loved every job I ever had," Johnson said, adding that he worked as a garbage hauler in his teens while growing up in Red Wing. "I loved writing for the Bulletin, too," he said.

Park was the only high school in south Washington County when Johnson started writing sports stories and a sports column in 1970. There were also no girls teams. "We could cover each sport in detail," he said.

Among his memories of sports writing is how much he admired the coaches he covered. "I still do," he said. "They wanted to win, but not at all costs. They were teachers."

"I saw the community coalescing," Johnson said. "The area learned through sports that they were a community."

Because of his ability to see the overall picture of what was happening in the area at the time, it was an easy move to shift to writing history.

Among his childhood memories are many visits to the Goodhue Historical Society.

"I remember the machine guns from World War II," he said.

Writing history is not too far from journalism and sports writing for Johnson.

Good stories about the people making history is what attracts and holds the attention of readers, he said.

"The greatest stories are true," he said. "They put history in context."

He writes articles, including, "Professor Anderson's Food Shot From Guns," about the invention of puffed rice cereal, in a narrative style.

Johnson uses excerpts from personal letters, quotes and humor, weaving them into a story.

"It's the only way to write for people who don't love history," he said. "History is the most popular genre."

"Richfield, Minnesota's Oldest Suburb," is selling so well that the city wants him to write another book about the families who lived there.

Don't look for the new book soon. It took two years to write the first book about Richfield. "I don't have 15 graduate students to do the research," Johnson said.

For a list of Johnson's books and publications, go to

Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
(651) 459-7600