Rheta Grimsley Johnson planned her entire Auburn career her junior year of high school, confident she would be the next female editor-in-chief.
As part of the 125 Years of Auburn Women Discover Lecture series, Johnson, class of ’77, came back to her alma mater to share her Auburn story, as well as where she ventured after graduation.
“Well, I came to Auburn 125 years ago,” Johnson joked as she began her speech.
Johnson remembered her sister coming home from the University for Thanksgiving, bringing a large stack of The Plainsman. Johnson said she was always eager to read through them.
It was then in 1970 Johnson discovered the current editor-in-chief was female, a feminist, and feisty. Beverly Bradford had inspired a young Johnson with the rarity of her sense of self and provocative opinions, which wasn’t common at that time.
“She became my instant hero,” Johnson said. “In 1970, it didn’t take much to be a ‘nasty woman.’ That’s it, I thought. I would be the next sassy female editor of The Auburn Plainsman."
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Just a few years before, in eighth grade, Johnson had decided she wanted to be a journalist for the rest of her life.
“In eighth grade, I took what little I knew from Brenda Starr and Lois Lane from the tv series Superman, and I sort of fantasized a future,” she said. “My first story was about a girls’ volleyball game.”
When that first story came out, Johnson found herself looking at her byline.
“From then, I became a byline addict,” she said.
When it came time to start at the University, Johnson told her parents she wanted to be a newspaper reporter. Her mother cried and her father told her to be the best one.
Once she made it to Auburn, Johnson pushed off a quarter or two before writing a small piece that became published.
The next year, under the editing leadership of Thom Botford, Johnson reached bigger heights as a writer and a columnist. Botsford ran her first column. Johnson said he was her favorite type of editor – one that gave good criticism nicely.
Johnson saved dozens of copies of the first paper she was published in.
Botsford exposed her to challenging subjects, such as the gay community in Auburn, which was not an open subject like it is today. Johnson said she was never bored working under Botsford, and because of his direction, she became a better writer.
“I learned the power of the printed word that year,” Johnson said.
Her most memorable story was a trend story on the newest fads in America, like streaking, and that was when Auburn became the first SEC school with widespread streaking, thanks to the attention Johnson’s articles brought to it.
“I became the instigator of people running around nude for no reason,” she said. “I was happy that my parents lived a world away in Montgomery.”
Her journey to editor-in-chief for The Plainsman wasn’t easy, as she ran against two men, an athlete and a fraternity brother. However, she won and became the newest female editor-in-chief of The Plainsman for the time.
As editor-in-chief, Johnson tackled heavy topics including the double standard with females in male dorms. Males were allowed to have female visitors in their dorms, but administrators barred females from having male visitors.
After speaking with an administrator about the sexism shown, their reply was that it was a social issue.
“Well, honey, the girls are getting pregnant,” was their reasoning, which Johnson said she has never forgotten. She and her team addressed the issue in an editorial, combatting sexism to the best of her abilities.
Johnson’s legacy lives on in her column work, as she became very successful after a few rite-of-passage hardships after graduation in 1977, two years after she was projected to.
Johnson won a Pacemaker Aware for her work with The Plainsman in the 1974-1975 awards. In 1991, she was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary.
Johnson has traveled throughout the country but considers Mississippi her home.
“Auburn would be second on my list as home,” Johnson said. She gives credit to her experience at Auburn and admits her life as a columnist has met her childhood expectations.
Johnson is now retired and has many books published, but she loved being a working journalist and telling the stories many wouldn't hear if it wasn't for journalists like her.
"My long career has been interviewing folks no one has ever heard of," Johnson said. "That’s what I like most.”
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