Mr. Walter Johnson, the subject of this sketch, died in Rock Island, November 23, 1903. He was for a third of a century one of the vital forces of the community. For twenty-seven years he occupied the editorial chair of the Daily Union, in which position he at all times was an able and courageous champion of that which he considered right, and calculated to make the community better. His editorial utterances carried weight not only because of their intrinsic merit and evident fairness in the presentation of the subjects under discussion, but because it was recognized throughout the community that they represented the honest and calm judgment of a man who in his private life exemplified his public utterances, and who at all times was actuated by the principles and motives of the Christian gentleman of the highest type.
Mr. Johnson was born in London, England, April 27, 1843, being a son of John F. and Harriette Augusta (Ryley) Johnson. The elder Mr. Johnson, who was a ribbon manufacturer in England, came to this country in 1851, settling at Welton, Iowa, at which place and Lyons, Iowa, he engaged in general merchandising, in connection with farming, until 1862, when he removed to Davenport, where he engaged in the grocery trade until 1867, when he removed to Rock Island, which city was his home until his death in 1888.
Walter Johnson, whose educational opportunities – in England and Iowa were supplemented by private study, inspired by the influence of cultured parents, his mother bringing to Welton the first piano ever seen in that section of the country, early evinced a predilection for newspaper work; but he loyally assisted his father in his mercantile ventures until he attained his majority, when he accepted a place on the staff of the Davenport Democrat. In 1868 he became the local editor of the Daily Union, and his connection with that paper continued until his death, with the exception of the Summer and
Winter of 1873, when he was on the editorial staff of the Chicago Inter-Ocean. Returning to Rock Island in the Spring of 1874, he bought a fourth interest in the Union Printing Company, which had been organized a few months before to take over the property from Captain L. M. Haverstick. Mr. Johnson succeeded Mr. Haverstick as editor of the Union and continued in the active discharge of the work until his health failed. Mr. Johnson successively purchased the interests of other stockholders until in 1891, by acquiring the holdings of Mr. H. C. Ashbaugh, he secured control of all the stock.
Mr. Johnson’s editorial policy was invariably on a high plane. He abhorred sensationalism, and the parading of happenings of a salacious nature in the columns of the paper, which for such a long period bore the impress of his wholesome personality and estimable character. The community looked upon him as an able advocate of all measures and movements which were calculated to minister to the elevation of mankind, and a convincing champion of the best interests of the community in which he lived. He had the faculty of presenting matters of local concern with a grace and charm peculiar to himself, while his discussion of political topics was marked by a lucidity and breath of view which made them valuable contributions to current symposiums. His editorial utterances received additional weight from the fact that the element of personal rancor was ever absent. Of a manly and generous nature he was loyal in his friendships, and chivalrous in his treatment of those who differed with him concerning men and measures. A Republican by conviction, his newspaper, the Union, was recognized as a sound and influential exponent of the party’s policies and doctrines.
Beside his constant work in his editorial capacity, Mr. Johnson also gave personal service at the sacrifice of much needed leisure. He took special pleasure in his work as a director of the Public Library. He became a member of the board in 1890, and served continuously until his death. He was a member of the building committee which directed the erection of the present splendid home of the library. In 1891, when Rock Island, by Congressional enactment, was made a port of entry, President Harrison appointed Mr. Johnson surveyor of customs, a position he held for three years, when President Cleveland appointed Mr. J. R. Johnston to succeed him.
Religiously, Mr. Johnson was an Episcopalian. He was a devout member of Trinity Church, and diligent and useful in the activities of the parish. He served the parish for a number of years as vestryman, and during the last three years of his life as Junior Warden.
Mr. Johnson was married in this city March 22, 1869, to Miss Ellen Head, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. William A. Head, who survives, together with two daughters, the Misses Harriette A. and Marguerite Johnson. One son, Eliot Leigh Johnson, was drowned in a boating accident on the Mississippi River April 12, 1892, when a boat containing four high school student was upset, resulting in the drowning of Leigh and one of his comrades.