Former Mayor Robert M.L. Johnson died Monday. The funeral home’s death notice says he died of a sudden illness. He was 88.
Johnson held the mayor’s post from 1962 through 1967 at a time when the city turned its attention to urban renewal in the downtown and to building an Interstate through the city.
“He was the strongest mayor we ever had,” Don Salyer, who served as the city’s director of planning and redevelopment for 37 years until the mid 1990s, said Monday.
“He laid out policies and programs and followed through on them,” Salyer remembered. “He took charge. He was a man of action so to speak. … There was nothing wishy-washy about him, let’s put it that way.”
Johnson was first elected to city office as public safety commissioner, but Jerry Elsea, a beat reporter for The Gazette at the time who went on to be the newspaper’s editorial page editor for some years, remembered that Johnson lost the backing of voters after he touted such ideas as one-way streets in the downtown. Johnson, though, reemerged quickly and was elected mayor.
Elsea remembered Johnson’s time in office as an era of strong leadership at City Hall. The city leaders at the time — they included two future mayors, Frank Bosh and Don Canney, in addition to Johnson — was sufficiently strong, Elsea said, that it allowed Cedar Rapids to put off the idea of changing its commission-style government with full-time mayor and commissioners for years. In 2006, the city did change to a part-time council and full-time city manager, a move, by the way, that Johnson supported then and in 1996 when voters rejected the idea.
Elsea said Johnson was at the epicenter of this group of City Hall leaders back in the 1960s who he said made some “wise and far-seeing decisions,” decisions that featured the kind of contentious public hearings that come with matters like urban renewal.
“It was a pretty colorful time for a reporter, because Johnson was not shy about giving his opinions,” Elsea remembered. “He was a colorful character and it was a colorful era for the town.”
Johnson first came to public life in Cedar Rapids as a local radio and television newscaster.
While mayor, he ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Congress in 1966 as a Republican against incumbent John Culver. Later, he served in the Iowa House of Representatives. In 1971 and 1972, he served as city manager of the city of Marion.
Johnson, who resided at Cottage Grove Place, 2115 First Ave. SE, was a tireless writer of letters to The Gazette’s editorial pages over the years and had frequent contact with reporters and others in his retirement.
Former Mayor Don Canney, who was the city’s public improvements commissioner during part of Johnson’s time as mayor and then became mayor in 1969, on Monday called Johnson “a good friend.”
“We disagreed on a lot of things, but as gentlemen,” Canney said. “I really admired him, and he did a darn good job as mayor.”
Canney said he and Johnson talked on the phone just a month ago. “We talked about how we both we’re getting along,” Canney said.
Two months ago, Johnson took time with a reporter, too, tickled, he said, to see that local artist Fred Easker was painting a landscape for the interior of the new federal courthouse now going up downtown.
Johnson wanted to point out that Easker was a Jefferson High School student back in the mid-1960s when Johnson was mayor and decided the city needed a city flag. Easker came up with the winning design.
Johnson said he was also proud that he initiated the charcoal portraits of the city’s mayors that now hang outside the council chambers in what is now the empty, flood-damaged City Hall. He also held a contest for a city song.
He said the city band always used to play the song at the end of their concerts, but then he said that gave way over the years.
Johnson said he asked the band why it stopped playing the song, and he said he was told, “The minute we start to play it people start to leave.”