Longtime attorney also served as state senator

Past Great Brooksvillian Joseph Johnston Jr., a former state senator and attorney with deep roots in the community, died Sunday at home. He was 86.

His legacy can be found in the great and small. During his one term in Tallahassee, Mr. Johnston helped pass the legislation that gave us the inscription “Sunshine State” on license plates. He also had a hand in the first fence laws to keep Florida’s cattle from roaming around town.

Mr. Johnston’s family tree was planted in the area before the Civil War, beginning with his great-grandfather. A 1940 graduate of Hernando High School and alumnus of the University of Florida, Mr. Johnston began making his mark on the area as an attorney for the local governments.

As city attorney, he signed the papers granting the airport to the county. He later became the first county attorney before taking a 40-year post as the school board’s attorney.

During decades of explosive growth in the county, Mr. Johnston gave “wise counsel” to the school board as they lay the groundwork for today’s system, longtime friend Jim Kimbrough said Wednesday.

“When you’re connected with the school system for 30-plus years, you’re connected to the fabric of the community,” said Kimbrough.

Mr. Johnston’s stint in the state senate during the early 1950s soured him on elected positions, so this was his form of public service, explained his son, Joe Johnston III, in an interview Wednesday.

Johnston vividly remembers his father’s old office, particularly the creaky wooden steps leading up to the second floor.

“It was like an old Sam Spade movie,” he recalled.

In the early days, Mr. Johnston would sometimes be paid by farmers in groceries. As more lawyers opened shop in Hernando County, he served as an example and mentor to another generation.

To attorney Joe Mason, Mr. Johnston embodied the classical image of a dignified lawyer. He represented a departure from today’s bumper crop of “slip and fall” lawyers.

“He was an example of how to do it,” said Mason.

At home, Mr. Johnston was married to Marilyn W. Johnston, who died before him in 1999 after more than 50 years together. In addition to Joe Johnston III, he also had two other sons: Darryl and Kevin Johnston.

Like many who grew up during the Depression, Mr. Johnston was thrifty. He turned off lights in the house and made sure plates were clean at the end of a meal. New cars were always bought with cash.

“He didn’t believe in credit. If you couldn’t pay for it in cash you couldn’t afford it,” said Darryl Johnston.

Mr. Johnston was a rabid Gator fan, long before they gained national glory. A season ticket holder since the 1940s, he once drove through the campus of the University of Georgia honking his horn and screaming “Go Gators!”

He was rarely sick and spurned medicine. A bad back once landed him in traction at the hospital, but his stay was short-lived. He called for a ride home and walked out on his own.

Old age eventually caught up with him, though. After 79 “vibrant” years, Mr. Johnston began feeling the effects of his age and stayed home more often. In 2006, he missed his announcement as Great Brooksvillian because of an illness.

“He would have hated the attention anyway,” Joe Johnston said. “He liked to work behind the scenes.”

For Kimbrough, Mr. Johnston was a highly-respected part of the community.

“He loved Brooksville and Hernando County in every way possible,” he said. “The community has lost a good man.”

Reporter Kyle Martin can be reached at 352-544-5271 or [email protected]

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