I almost became the first editor of Gambit Weekly to die in office. Instead, it's a story I've lived to write about.
It was the last Friday of September 1994. The paper had gone to the printer. I worked late, planning for the next issue, ignoring an upset stomach.
The pain quickly intensified. I was admitted to a hospital the next morning. Preliminary tests showed I had leukemia, or cancer of the blood. I was 34.
A New Orleans native, I had 12 years of journalism behind me, the last two with Gambit. Clancy and Margo DuBos promoted me to editor in 1993. In my first issue at the paper's helm, I assisted staffer André Maillho with a story ("Eyes of the Storm," Sept. 21, 1993), that cast doubt on claims by owners of Mississippi's floating casinos that their venues could withstand or evade a major hurricane. Thirteen years later, Gambit's story still stands -- unlike the coastal casinos hammered by Katrina.
We also exposed an outgoing mayor's plan to give himself a "golden parachute" -- an extra $500,000 in retirement benefits -- and chronicled other scandals in government, the nascent gambling industry, and in the New Orleans Police Department. We lacked the resources of the local daily newspaper but did not suffer from its shortage of imagination. For example, in March 1994, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee pulled his deputies out of a black Avondale neighborhood overnight, saying its residents failed to support police. (The residents alleged police brutality.)
Instead of staffing protests and press conferences, we checked the results of an election held six months earlier on Lee's proposal for a sales-tax increase and found far stronger support for Lee's proposal in black precincts -- including Avondale -- than in majority-white areas. Lee reinstated the patrols.
My job was satisfying, but I felt increasingly fatigued. I chalked up the frequent headaches, insomnia and other symptoms to the stress of being editor. When I awoke in my hospital room that Monday morning, Gambit was back from the printer and on the street. My father, a former newspaperman, grabbed a stack. At my request, he began passing the papers around the hospital. Soon, a team of doctors came into my room with some serious-looking medical equipment. Someone injected me with a concoction of Valium and Demerol.
The phone rang. I heard Margo's voice and suddenly remembered -- I had forgotten to call in sick. "The doctors say I might have hairy cell leukemia," I told Margo, cheerfully. "That's 'hairy' as in 'hippie'."
The drugs were starting to work.
She sounded shocked.
I happily assured her that Gambit had "total market saturation of the hospital's seventh floor, except for acute psychiatry, where the patients are using them to make paper hats!"
She didn't laugh, but told me to take as much time off as I needed to get well.
The biopsy confirmed the diagnosis. I had been shot through with cancer for at least four years. Left untreated, my oncologist later said, I would probably have lived only another three to six months -- dead before Jazz Fest.
Fortunately, there was a new chemotherapy available. I was back at work in less than two weeks.
Rejuvenated, I finished 1994 with a healthy string of cover story ideas, which I matched with talented writers. A personal favorite: former baseball pro Ron Swoboda's preview of the Monet exhibit at the New Orleans Museum of Art in early 1995. I had read a thumbnail sketch in The Times-Picayune sports pages about Swoboda finding a passion for French Impressionism after a famous catch he made in the 1969 World Series. Swoboda's preview of Monet was a "home run" with art fans.
My grand finale as editor was 10 years ago this week. I penned an expos of a crime victims' rights advocate who had been appointed to advise the Louisiana Supreme Court. The now-deceased, disbarred lawyer had ignored the high court's long-standing order to pay $8,000 to a disabled woman he had bilked out of a settlement. She got her money after our story ran, and he submitted his resignation to the high court.
By then, Clancy DuBos had warmed to the idea of being editor again. I welcomed the chance to spend more time reporting and writing -- happy to be alive to tell a story.
Allen M. Johnson Jr.