Spotlight Iowa City: An interest in everything

The Daily Iowan


There are really no simple answers when talking to UI Professor Nicholas Johnson, so one must be prepared.

It"s a trip, albeit a pretty interesting one.

He"s the type of guy where the conversation starts reasonably enough in Afghanistan and after a few seconds (OK, maybe a little more than a few), takes a detour at the possible sites for Hancher Auditorium, swings through a health-care meeting in Washington, D.C., makes a pit stop at a local School Board meeting, and then ends up walking down the streets of his native Iowa City.

And then the law professor goes on a guided tour along the muddy banks of the Iowa River and flood prevention, finally settling on the First Amendment, which he cherishes and has spent his life protecting.

Guarding the First Amendment during an oft-antagonistic stint as FCC commissioner between 1966 and 1973 helped land him a spot recently in a book of the most influential people in American legal history. There he is joined by the likes of Thurgood Marshall, Bill Clinton, and, of course, O.J. Simpson.

He wrote more opinions than the other six FCC commissioners combined, and his role landed him on the cover of Rolling Stone.

"I"m interested in God damned nearly every subject," he said.

Let"s take his word for it. At first, this reporter didn"t during a conversation on a recent evening. It was apparently a mistake.

"He wants to know every thought I"ve ever had," Johnson called out to wife Mary Vasey, who was tentatively stepping into their living room looking for something she had misplaced.

"Oh, Lord help us," she said and laughed.

Johnson chuckled and paused for a second, a real second this time.

"She"s my editor and my conscience " the source of all my good ideas," Johnson said.

Johnson, who went to University High School in Iowa City, now the UI"s North Hall, first met his wife there. She beat him out for president in the 10th grade.

They were married in 1991 after their spouses passed away; between the two, they have seven kids, five grandchildren, three great grandchildren, seven fish, and two cats.

His friends adore him to the point where they don"t mind telling him he just may be sucking the air out of the room.

"We rib each other a lot," said longtime friend and law professor Sheldon Kurtz. "But it"s all done with a great deal of humor and honestly a great deal of affection. I love the man; he"s a great human being."

Johnson sometimes refers to himself as Little Nicky Johnson.

The thing is, at 6-4 and 75 years old, he"s really not that little, and he"s really long passed the age when most people drop the "y" from their name.

But it works " he brings a youthful energy to everything he does, waking up frighteningly close to bar closing time but sometimes sleeping in until 6 a.m.

The balding, white-haired professor began teaching at the law school in 1981, and he holds the much-coveted distinction as the longest continuously visiting professor at the law school.

Every state has seen Johnson, and he has visited around 40 different countries. But the man who was born in what is now UI Hospitals and Clinics returned to his favorite city around when his mother became terminally ill in 1980. He eventually took over his childhood home in a neighborhood near Kinnick Stadium.

He always planned on coming back to Iowa City, he said. He has his grave plot picked out, after all.