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Joseph Johnston

Epilogue: Joseph Johnston, father of Sunshine State license plate

BROOKSVILLE — Joseph Johnston was fresh out of law school when he ran for a Florida Senate seat.

His two opponents, the mayor of Brooksville and a state representative, had the edge in experience. Mr. Johnston's experience consisted of serving as student government president at Hernando High School.

Mr. Johnston, then 26, won the race.

In 1949, his first year as a state legislator, he introduced a bill to add "Sunshine State" to Florida license plates. The bill passed.

He served just one term, then devoted himself to private practice in Brooksville. He practiced law for about 50 years, including at least 40 years representing the Hernando County School Board.

Mr. Johnston died Sunday at home. He was 86.

He wore a coat and tie to work, no matter what, and believed a man's word was his bond.

"If you shook Joe's hand, you had a deal," said longtime friend Joe Mason, 65.

The son of a state beverage worker who traveled and a mother who died of pneumonia when Mr. Johnston was 9, Mr. Johnston learned how to rely on himself. He served as a Navy pilot in the Pacific Ocean during World War II despite suffering from vertigo.

After the war, he bored through law books at the University of Florida, finishing in two years. As a state senator, he fought ranchers to end an "open range" tradition that allowed cattle to wander freely. Owners were eventually required to install fences.

His son, Joseph Johnston III, 57, doesn't know why his father proposed a "Sunshine State" message on license plates.

The "Sunshine State" logo appeared on all license plates from 1949 through 1975, with two exceptions: 1951, when the state replaced the slogan with "Keep Florida Green," and 1965, to mark Florida's "400th Anniversary."

Counties later began offering motorists a choice between "Sunshine State" and the name of the county. In 2008, a third option was approved for the state's motto, "In God We Trust."

Johnston finished his legislative term in 1953, saying he wouldn't return. The experience had disillusioned him, said circuit Judge Richard Tombrink, who practiced law with Mr. Johnston for five years in the 1970s.

"He got very upset with the whole process, the compromise and backdoor dealings, is what I recall him saying," said Tombrink, 59.

Then, of course, there was the money.

"We were paid $600 every two years," Mr. Johnston told the Times in 1980. "I would have starved to death. I had to go all over the state for hearings and had to hitchhike rides."

At least one good thing happened while he was in the Legislature: He met a zoology student at Florida State University named Marilyn. Turns out, she had family in Hernando County. They married six months after their first date.

As one of a handful of lawyers in Brooksville in those days, Mr. Johnston might have worked round-the-clock to lure clients. Instead, he spent countless hours at the Rotary Club and with the Masons, representing the city of Brooksville for 14 years and the school board for 40 years.

By the time Mr. Johnston retired in 2002, Brooksville had changed drastically, even if he had not. No one made handshake deals anymore. Lawyers angled for clients on billboards and television.

One of his most lasting legacies came from that legislative term he vowed never to repeat — the tens of thousands of vehicles on Florida's roads at any hour, with license plates celebrating the Sunshine State.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or


Joseph E. Johnston

Born: Sept. 16, 1922.

Died: May 24, 2009.

Survivors: sons Joseph III and his wife, Diana; Darryl and his wife, Tammy; and Kevin and his wife, Kelly; six grandchildren; seven great-grandchildren; three great-great-grandchildren.

Service: 2 p.m. today; First United Methodist Church, 109 S Broad St., Brooksville.

Epilogue: Joseph Johnston, father of Sunshine State license plate 05/28/09 [Last modified: Thursday, May 28, 2009 11:20pm]
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