Steve Otto Columns
Otto: Semper Fidelis was life creed for ex-state attorney
On a hot day in late summer during World War II, a woman — a mother — standing on a porch in Seminole Heights, felt a cool breeze ease across her face. "He's all right," she said out loud. "My Paul is all right." At that moment, about 8,000 miles away, 17-year-old Paul B. Johnson had just dodged a bullet. The young Marine was with thousands of other Americans slugging their way across the Solomon Islands, from Guadalcanal to Peleliu, where his division would suffer the highest casualty rate of any American division in the war. That particular afternoon he was hunkered down when the call came for volunteers to man the stretchers where medics were being targeted as they brought back wounded. They could not afford to lose any more medics, but Johnson and his buddies were, well, expendable.Running up the hill he had just lifted the stretcher when the bullet flashed across his face, creasing his cheek. As the story goes in the family, it was at that precise second the breeze blew across his mother's face and she knew all was well. This was the same Paul Johnson who, on Halloween two years later, called home to say he was alive and well and coming home. For the next almost 50 years, every Halloween he would make the call to his mother. And this was the same Paul Johnson who would come home, go to law school and eventually become state attorney during tumultuous years in Hillsborough politics. Paul Johnson died Feb. 16 at the age of 86 and was buried in a quiet ceremony on Thursday. On hand were about 30 of his closest friends, including judges and lawyers, his widow, former Plant High Assistant Principal Annamae Johnson, and his son, Andy Johnson, who just retired as a meteorologist from WTVT, Channel 13. A Marine honor guard presented the flag to his widow. "He was an extraordinary man," said Judge E.J. Salcines, who one day would be hired by Johnson and also go on to become the state attorney. "The court was changing and there would be women and blacks and Latino names on the bench. Paul Johnson would be leading the way in pushing those changes. He was a leader and it would be controversial. Leadership is a contact sport, and he was the right man at the right time." It would be all of that and more as Tampa and Hillsborough County battled not only with equality but corruption. The give-and-take battles even hit at Johnson, who was once accused and then cleared of being involved in the bribery and corruption trials that would send county commissioners to prison. "He was what the greatest generation was all about," Salcines said. "He didn't always remember his own birthday, but every year he would hold a party to celebrate the birthday of the Marine Corps. Semper Fi was his creed … Always Faithful." You probably could have seen it coming. In the ROTC at Hillsborough High, it was only hours after graduation he enlisted in the Marine Corps. After the war, Johnson entered the University of Florida and graduated from law school in 1950. At 26 he became the youngest county solicitor elected in Hillsborough County. He was then elected as state attorney for the 13th Judicial Circuit of Florida, serving from 1961-65 before returning to private practice. During his career he was chairman of the Criminal Justice Section of the American Bar Association and helped bring reforms to the grand jury system in Florida. He was appointed by Gov. Lawton Chiles to the Judicial Nominating Committee for the Second District Court of Appeal. I thought his final years demonstrated his greatest acts of courage. He had a laundry list of physical problems, including the loss of his legs. But you would never know it. He never complained publicly and with the help of his Annamae, never really slowed down. "He was faithful to his friends, family and country," Salcines said. He lived that motto Semper Fidelis … Always Faithful."