Robert Thomas Johnston · 1970
By Chris Keogh
Thomas Robert Johnston was born at Bluffton, Indiana, March 7, 1893, to James Robert and Christina Gordon Johnston.
Tommy Johnston began his career as a reporter on the staff of the Bluffton Banner while still in high school. Later, while a student at the then Indiana State Teachers College at Terre Haute, Johnston was employed on the editorial staff of the Terre Haute Star from 1912 to 1914. He went to Fort Wayne as a reporter on the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette from 1914 to 1916. He was named state editor of the Indianapolis Star and city editor of Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette before joining the Purdue staff on December 1, 1917.
In 1921, he was asked to establish the Bureau of Information (now the University Public Information Service) and served as its director until his retirement June 30, 1963. For many years he was known throughout the state and nation as the “voice of Purdue.”
He was responsible for pioneering work in setting up news coverage for the International Livestock Exposition in Chicago and for the National 4-H Club Congress. From 1924 to 1948 he headed the publicity programs for the Indiana State Fair.
In 1951-52, Johnston set up a farm education and promotional plan for the Marshall Plan in Italy and spent seven months in the country. He was known also for his role as Purdue’s representative to the Indiana General Assembly. Also in 1952, Johnston received his Bachelor of Science degree from Indiana State Teachers College.
At the urging of many friends throughout Indiana, Johnston in 1956 sought the Democratic nomination for governor but was unsuccessful.
Widely known for his work in community service, he was one of the organizers of the Tippecanoe County Farm Bureau in 1919, the Boy Scout Council, and the Lafayette Community Fund. In 1956, he headed the first United Fund drive in Lafayette and Tippecanoe counties.
He was an active member of the Lafayette Home Hospital Board for 16 years, and for 14 years he was president of the West Lafayette Park Board.
He was one of the oldest members of the American Public Relations Association, of which he served as secretary and vice president. In 1930, he was one of the organizers of the Hoosier State Press Association. He served as state chairman of the Christian Rural Overseas Program (CROP).
He was a member of Sigma Phi Epsilon, Alpha Phi Omega, the Methodist Church, the Reamer Club (Purdue), the Torch Club, and was a 33rd degree Mason.
He married in 1915. His first wife, Flora, preceded him in death. He then married the former Mrs. Bessie S. Craig in 1948. He was the father or two sons and a daughter. another son, Thomas Jr., died in childhood. He had four stepchildren and a brother. Tommy Johnston’s hobbies were fishing and hunting.
Johnston died at the Comfort Nursing Home in Lafayette on June 20, 1967, after a lingering illness of some 18 months.
Tommy Johnston began his newspaper career on the Bluffton Banner while in high school. A graduate of Indiana State Teachers College, he worked his way through most of college by working on the editorial staff of the Terre Haute Star. He was a reporter for the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, 1914-1916; state editor of the Indianapolis Star, 1916-17; and city editor of the Journal-Gazette (Fort Wayne), 1917, before he went to Purdue University December 1, 1917, to set up an agriculture information bureau and teach news writing to county agents at Purdue’s extension program. Johnson was irritated by what he considered a poorly written release from the Purdue School of Agriculture.
Johnston made his views known and as a result was offered a post at the university. After four years as agriculture publicity head he was named to set up and head an information service, the Bureau of Information (now the University Public Information Service), for Purdue until his retirement on June 30, 1963.
In 1930, Johnston proposed and helped organize the Hoosier State Press Association. He set up the agriculture press bureau at the International Stock Exposition in 1923 (in Chicago), and three years later handled public relations for the 4-H Club Congress at the exposition. He was directly connected with the promotional work for the Indiana State Fair from 1924 through 1949 and in 1951-52 he set up the farm educational and promotional program for the Marshall Plan in Italy. His public relations ability became internationally known through his work in this post.
Not only did Johnston work in the field of journalism but he is credited with aiding in the establishment of Purdue’s radio station, WBAA. the state’s oldest station and one of the state’s best known educational radio outlets.
In 1960 he received a citation for unselfish service to the highest ideals of journalism from the Indiana Professional Chapter of Sigma Delta Chi, journalism fraternity.
Active in not only the affairs of higher education, Tommy Johnston became widely known for his work in community service. He was one of the organizers of the Tippecanoe County Farm Bureau in 1919, the greater Lafayette community, and the Lafayette Community Fund which he headed as campaign director for three years.
In 1956, he headed the first United Fund drive in Lafayette and Tippecanoe counties. He also was active of the Lafayette Home Hospital Board for 16 years. Upon his retirement from that unit, he was named its first honorary member.
For 14 years, he was president of the West Lafayette Park Board and was vice president of the board as well as on the board of the West Lafayette Conservancy District until his death.
At the urging of many friends throughout Indiana, Johnston in 1956 sought the Democratic nomination for governor but unsuccessfully.
He was chairman or member of various university advisory committees and was adviser of the Purdue chapter of Sigma Delta Chi and the Purdue Exponent. He also played an important role in the work of the Christian Rural Overseas Program (CROP) and was a state chairman. On January 11, 1963, Governor Matthew Walsh named Tommy Johnston a “Sagamore of the Wabash.”
He was a member of Sigma Phi Epsilon, Alpha Phi Omega, the Methodist Church, and the Reamer Club (Purdue), and was a 33rd degree Mason.