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Joseph "Joe" E. Johnston Jr., former legislator and Hernando School Board attorney, dies at 86

Joe Johnston Jr. hated the term "good ol' boy.''

"I don't ever think there was such a dadgum thing to begin with,'' Johnston said in 1995. "I can only classify that as being a figment of peoples' imaginations.''

To make his point — that Brooksville's leaders were not necessarily part of the same, cozy, so-called good ol' boys club — he told me about his term in the state Senate, from 1949 to 1953.

Johnston, who died Sunday (May 24, 2009) at age 86 and whose funeral will be at 2 p.m. today at the First United Methodist Church in Brooksville, was all for modernizing what was then an isolated, sparsely populated state. To promote tourism, he sponsored the bill that placed the "Sunshine State'' slogan on license plates. To get cattle off the roads, he backed the 1949 fence law.

"Joe wanted the county to grow,'' said former state Rep. Chuck Smith.

Alfred McKethan, a Brooksville banker and the new state roads commissioner, was allied with a powerful group of rural legislators called the Pork Chop Gang. Though McKethan was also pro-growth, he more than once undermined Johnston in Tallahassee, Johnston said. And Johnston later helped form a rival bank, the First National Bank of Brooksville.

"They were political opposites,'' Smith said.

Yes, leaders of this town had their differences. So did members of its most powerful families. And Johnston, better than almost anyone, was in a position to know this.

His career as a lawyer in town spanned more than five decades, starting when Brooksville was so rural some of his clients paid in vegetables, said his son, Brooksville City Council member Joe Johnston III.

"He went from the time Atticus Finch was the typical small-town lawyer to the era of modern practices, when we have (eight) judges in the county and the lawyers are all specialists,'' said former County Attorney Bruce Snow.

Because there were fewer than a half-dozen lawyers in town in the 1950s, "you paid attention to those guys, and admired them,'' said Snow, 62, who also remembers facing Johnston in a 1970s case that went to the Florida Supreme Court.

"You're a lawyer fresh out of law school and suddenly you're up against one your childhood idols,'' he said. "That made you a better lawyer yourself.''

Besides his private practice, Johnston served as the attorney for the city of Brooksville and, for more than 40 years, the Hernando County School Board. Which leads to another thought about Johnston: You can't help but notice how well-connected he was.

Belonging to either the Brooksville Country Club or the Brooksville Rotary is almost a prerequisite for doing business in Brooksville. Johnston was a founding member of both. He earned his bachelor's and law degrees from the main breeding ground of local movers and shakers, the University of Florida, and was an avid Gators fan throughout his life.

In 2006, he was named that year's Great Brooksvillian to recognize all of his public contributions.

So it's no surprise that his professional history mirrors his community's.

For the city, Johnston said in a 1998 interview, he wrote the 1948 zoning law that segregated white and black residents into separate neighborhoods.

He borrowed the language from Sanford's ordinance, he said, and certainly the law reflects more on Florida and Brooksville at the time than on Johnston. But that's part of his legacy, too.

Among his challenges as the School Board's attorney were guiding it through desegregation in the 1960s and explosive growth in the 1970s and 1980s.

Johnston's expertise in real estate law came in especially handy during that era because the district was buying so much property, said Leland McKeown, a longtime School Board member and close friend.

The two acquisitions McKeown remembers best were the large tract that now holds Central High, West Hernando Middle and Pine Grove Elementary schools, and the property on Broad Street that was once the site of a bar and is now home to the district's administrative offices.

"We absolutely relied on (Johnston),'' McKeown said. "He always said, 'Talk to me before making your decision, and I'll keep you out of trouble,' and that's what I tried to do. He was the finest attorney you could have, period.''

Joseph "Joe" E. Johnston Jr., former legislator and Hernando School Board attorney, dies at 86 05/28/09 [Last modified: Thursday, May 28, 2009 7:19pm]
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