The Truly Grateful Ms. Anderson

I was out in the yard gardening but now I’m sitting at my desk crying because someone I never met, but who inspired me, has died.

Seattle Times humor columnist Steve Johnston died of throat cancer, complicated by MS. The farewell he left, which appeared in the Seattle Times May 29, concluded with typical mischief:

All in all, it has been a good life. I’ve kept my sense of humor, I managed to keep my wife after 30 years, and my children finally moved out of the house. They still live nearby, though, and spend time with me.

When I moved to Seattle in 1985, I started reading Steve’s weekly columns in the Sunday magazine about his mishaps with his house, his pets, his kids, and his long-suffering wife — referred to in the columns as “The Truly Unpleasant Mrs. Johnson.” (It turns out she refused to allow him to immortalize her as “Saint Nancy). At one point, when a reader bent on epitomizing humorless feminism wrote a letter to the editor to complain about Johnston’s nickname for his wife, I fired off a letter in his defense — proving, I’m afraid, that you can’t explain humor.

In my many years as a news reporter, magazine feature writer, and arts reviewer, I’d always wanted to be a humor columnist. But openings like that are few and the competition is fierce.

But I kept dreaming. In 2006, when I left Apple, I took the Erma Bombeck writing workshop in Ohio. You can just image the wit and the energy of a gathering of 200 aspiring humor writers. I’d get into the elevator to go up to my room at night and the conversation would be so hilarious that someone would push the button and we’d go back down to the lobby where we’d sit around and keep telling stories.

It was just a year ago that I heard about an opening for a humor writer at a membership newsletter. The Home Owners Club was looking for a replacement for their columnist — who, it turned out, had been Steve Johnston! I applied, and was thrilled to be chosen for the contract. I was delighted when my first assignment was not to be funny but to write an appreciation of my predecessor. This gave me the opportunity to read through dozens of Steve’s columns for the Seattle Times and the Home Owners Club. (My favorites are the ones about the coupon clipping, appliance repair, and the refrigerator door magnets.)

Steve’s writing inspires me because it’s funny rather than clever, wry rather than snarky, and timeless rather than topical. It’s the sort of writing that lasts a lot longer than the newspaper medium allows. Fortunately, we can still read many of Steve’s gems in Tales of the the Truly Unpleasant, a new collection available from Amazon, iUniverse, and Barnes & Noble.

Deepest sympathies to the Johnston family, and Steve’s many friends and colleagues, from the Truly Grateful Ms. Anderson.

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