Rheta Grimsley Johnson (1953- ) is an award-winning reporter, columnist, and travelogue and memoir writer whose subject matter includes seemingly average southern people whose stories she elevates to the universal. Johnson writes compassionately about the often overlooked and rapidly disappearing contemporary rural South.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson Johnson was born Rheta Grimsley on November 10, 1953, in Colquitt, Georgia; she grew up in Montgomery, Montgomery County. She recognized by the eighth grade that she wanted to become a journalist and began working on her school newspaper at Robert E. Lee High School. She attended Auburn University, where she won the National Pacemaker Award, an award for excellence in student journalism, in 1974, while editor of the university’s student newspaper, The Auburn Plainsman.
Johnson married Jimmy Johnson, who was later to create the comic strip Arlo and Janis, and left Auburn University before she graduated to start a weekly paper with her husband on St. Simon Island, Georgia; the newspaper closed after six months. Johnson then returned to Auburn University, graduating in 1977 with a degree in journalism. Afterward, she worked for several years as a general reporter for various newspapers, including the Auburn Bulletin, the Birmingham News, and United Press International before she began her career with the Memphis Commercial Appeal in 1980, working out of Greenville, Tupelo, and Jackson, Mississippi. In 1983, the Scripps-Howard News Service began distributing her columns nationwide to about 300 papers. Also in 1983, she was awarded the Ernie Pyle Memorial Award for human interest reporting and the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ Distinguished Writing Award for commentary. She won the Headliner Award for commentary in both 1985 and 1986. Also in 1985, she was inducted into the Scripps Howard Newspaper’s Editorial Hall of Fame. She published a collection of her columns from the Commercial Appeal in 1987 entitled America’s Faces.
Her authorized biography of Charles Schulz, creator of the Peanuts comic strip was published in 1989 under the title Good Grief: The Story of Charles M. Schulz. In it, Johnson examines the cartoonist’s work and life, linking him in various ways to his main character Charlie Brown. Johnson and her husband divorced that year as well.
Johnson was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1991. Two years later, she married reporter and journalism professor Don Grierson. In 1994, the Atlanta Journal Constitution hired her as a general columnist after the death of its popular columnist Lewis Grizzard. She worked in Atlanta for seven years while living in Carrollton, Georgia.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson and Don Grierson In 1996, while on assignment writing about a bachelor party that featured a boar hunt, she and her husband visited the town of Henderson, Louisiana. There, they bought a small houseboat named the Green Queen and began spending much of their spare time on it. They then bought a vacation home in Henderson on the edge or the Atchafalaya Swamp. Johnson’s autobiographical Poor Man’s Provence: Finding Myself in Cajun Louisiana (2008), documents and defines the unique food, songs, dances, and world view of the Cajun culture that she immersed herself in in Henderson.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson and Hines Hall Johnson’s second husband died in 2009. The following year, she married retired Auburn University history professor Hines Hall. The couple split their time between a cabin in a rural area named Fishtrap Hollow near Pickwick Lake and Iuka in North Mississippi and a home in Pass Christian, Mississippi. In 2016, she published a memoir, The Dogs Buried Over the Bridge: A Memoir in Dog Years, in which she discusses life events through the lens of all the dogs she has owned over the years. That same year, she co-wrote the play Hiram; Becoming Hank Williams with author John M. Williams on Hank Williams‘s childhood; it was staged in Pell City, St. Clair County. In 2020, Johnson wrote a series of columns for the “Hunkering Down” pandemic blog in the French Quarter Journal on being trapped in France for several months when Covid-19 struck the world. Johnson continues to write one column a week for the King Features Syndicate, which distributes it to approximately 50 newspapers nationally.
Works by Rheta Grimsley Johnson
America’s Faces (1987)
Good Grief: The Story of Charles M. Schulz (1989)
Poor Man’s Provence: Finding Myself in Cajun Louisiana (2008)
Enchanted Evening Barbie and the Second Coming: A Memoir (2010)
Hank Hung the Moon and Warmed Our Cold, Cold Hearts (2012)
The Dogs Buried Over The Bridge: A Memoir in Dog Years (2016)
“Rheta Grimsley Johnson” Biographical Dictionary of American Newspaper Columnists. Biography Reference Bank. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995.