In a cruel coincidence, a new development in the city’s ongoing struggle with how to deal with the homeless came the day of news of the unexpected death of Robert Johnston, a tireless advocate for the homeless in a long career of public service.
Friends tell me Johnston collapsed and died while jogging on Broadway in the Quapaw Quarter, a neighborhood whose preservation and revitalization started in earnest in the early 1970s thanks to the impetus of a core of people who included Johnston, a former state legislator and Public Service Commission chairman.
Friends tell me a service is scheduled at 2 p.m. Saturday at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, where Johnston had long led a class discussing issues of the day. I heard from him regularly with tips from his voracious reading of national publications. But his passion for the homeless was unsurpassed, stirred recently by police enforcement action against a mission that serves meals to all comers from a storefront on Markham Street.
He was a founder, along with his partner Matilda Buchanan, of the Feed the Hungry breakfast program for homeless, which grew from his volunteer work at the Stewpot mission.
He led a remarkable life. The Pine Bluff native (Pine Bluff High 1958) went to Rice, where he was a football star on a then-powerful Owl team (he tackled LSU great Billy Cannon on the first play of his first collegiate game, he liked to remember) and became a Rhodes scholar. He passed up pro football offers for academia. He served three years in the Army airborne, earned a Ph.D. from Columbia University and taught at West Point before landing on the faculty at UALR. He served eight years in the Arkansas House. Gov. Bill Clinton appointed him chair of the PSC and in later years he did government consulting work in places as far-flung as Armenia,
When honored by his alma mater, Rice, it compiled this summary of his time there and in subsequent years.