URBANA — Former Congressman Tim Johnson of Urbana passed away Monday (May 9, 2022) at Carle Foundation Hospital, Urbana, surrounded by family and close friends.
Johnson was born in Urbana on July 23, 1946, to Robert Vincent and Margaret Evans Johnson, then raised in the community where he attended local schools and graduated from Urbana High School in 1964. Initially, he pursued higher education at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York but returned to Champaign County to complete his education at the University of Illinois, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1969; along with a degree in history, he also earned Bronze Tablet distinction, one of the university's highest honors. Johnson remained local to central Illinois following his undergraduate years and enrolled in the UI College of Law, where he graduated with inclusion in the The Order of the Coif legal honor society in 1972. From there, he began a law practice and founded what became a highly successful law firm in downtown Urbana.
Throughout his formative and early professional years, he embraced his Champaign County roots and determined he would follow his father's example of participation in public service. While still pursuing his juris doctor, he ran for and won a seat on the Urbana City Council, where he served for five years. By 1976, he had developed an enthusiasm for assisting people with city government challenges and an effective ability to operate within the legislative body to achieve policy solutions. With a strengthened commitment to continue serving the public, but also make a greater impact, he opted to seek office in the Illinois State Legislature. Having not lost an election at this early stage in his political career, he won office for state representative, where he served for the next 24 years. Throughout that time, he rose in the ranks in the General Assembly and impacted legislation that has shaped this state into what we know today.
Simultaneously, the young attorney and politician also had chosen to start a family, which grew to 10 children. While maintaining a demanding schedule with his law practice, legislative responsibilities, constituent assistance, re-election campaigns every other year and establishment and ownership of a UI Campustown Baskin Robbins store, he prioritized his children and supported their academic and athletic pursuits. On several occasions, he even volunteered his minimal "free time" to coach various youth sporting leagues.
Sports were a passion for Tim. In addition to the teams from Urbana High School and other teams on which his kids played, he was a rabid fan of the Boston Celtics and St. Louis Cardinals. And nobody could question his allegiance to any team that the University of Illinois produced. Already closely tied to the UI as a double, honored graduate, family ties to Illinois athletics also formed through the years; he became father-in-law to a former Illini football player. While sports provided a great hobby for Tim to pursue throughout the seasons, he amassed a tremendous understanding and appreciation for local sports history.
In 1999, U.S. Congressional District 15 in Illinois was vacated through the retirement of Tom Ewing of Pontiac. That district included all or parts of 11 East Central Illinois counties, including all of Champaign County — notably, Champaign County had rarely produced a homegrown member of Congress. With nearly 30 years of successful elections under his belt, Tim Johnson declared candidacy for this newly opened congressional seat. And to his advantage, many parts of the district overlapped with areas Tim had served as a 24-year state legislator. With significant regional interest in this election, Tim would compete against three other Republicans in a primary campaign where he faced great odds. Notably, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives supported one of Tim's opponents, while the retiring congressman in the district supported his own son in the race. The campaign grew very spirited over five months, but Tim's disciplined "retail campaign" style along with a loyal constituency and a keen understanding of the region and its needs was able to persevere and move on as the Republican nominee for the open seat in Congress. This time, he faced a newcomer Democrat who brought significant national backing through funding and other resources. The stakes were high, and the campaign became very heated, but on the November 2000 Election Day, Tim prevailed by a 51 percent to 49 percent margin.
It also is worth noting that the following election cycle in 2002 took place under a newly redrawn congressional map, as required by the once-per-decade reapportionment to ensure U.S. population shifts maintain representative equity. Due to population decline in Illinois in the 1990s, the state lost one seat in congress, which required new district lines — mainly downstate — to gain in landmass. This resulted in Tim's 15th District partially combining with a southern Illinois district, at the time held by a Democrat. Both men chose to run the 2002 cycle and brought a rare member-versus-member race to Illinois, which attracted attention from around the country. With several new counties now in the district that Tim fought to represent, his unique "retail campaign" style, along with political savvy and a solid record of legislative efficacy, he emerged as winner yet again. He held the seat for the next 10 years before eventually retiring to focus on his expanding family.
As a 12-year member of Congress, Tim became a leading voice through his service to the Agriculture, Transportation & Infrastructure and Science Committees. Early on in his Washington career, he was tasked with serving as acting speaker during minor, procedural floor activity, a duty commonly given to first-term lawmakers. It so happened that on one occasion fulfilling this role, it happened to be Sept. 11, 2001, at the very moment when terrorists attacked Washington, D.C., and other parts of the country. Tim recalled this as a numbing experience that signified changes to this country that are still felt today.
Throughout the following years serving Illinois on Capitol Hill, Tim cast many votes, always seeking solutions. He was steadfast in his fight for fiscal responsibility, agriculture prosperity, Illinois infrastructure improvement, higher education, individual freedoms and constituent service. He often said, "In Congress, I'm just one of 435 votes. But when a grandma in Chrisman, Illinois, has been shorted in her Social Security check, I am her best advocate. And I will see to it that the government gives her what she has earned and deserves."
Many people who met with Tim to conduct business, lobby issues, discuss political strategies, talk sports or simply advance friendships would find themselves walking alongside him either on the National Mall in Washington, a Main Street in Any-town, Illinois, or, very often, Urbana's Lincoln Square Mall. Tim adopted a fierce fitness routine that involved hours of walking, swimming and calisthenics. His walks were the most visible, and if he was walking alone, he was usually spotted with a phone to his ear and a list of constituent phone numbers to which he was placing courtesy calls. He gained significant national attention for this unique outreach and his undeterred pursuit to keep in regular touch with the people of East Central Illinois whom he not only represented but loved. He became a known visitor to the many restaurants, VFW halls, chicken dinners, church potlucks and community fairs around rural Illinois, but he was never seeking greasy hamburgers, cold beers, fried chicken or corn dogs; rather, he was seeking out problems to solve for constituents facing government red tape. Occasionally, he would sit down to enjoy a hot tea.
A man of deep faith, though never worn on his sleeve, Tim was a true Christian. He was also a ruthlessly principled man. Though he sometimes found himself at odds with his party, Tim never backed away from his strong commitment to fiscal responsibility, civil liberties and the environment. He developed a reputation early as a relentless fighter for Republican politics, but his political ideals were to shape a party that invited healthy debate and inclusiveness. He gained great respect from political foes and forged countless, lifelong friendships across the many aisles from where he sat in Urbana, Springfield and Washington, D.C. Notably, as a then-three-term Congressman, he gained national attention for joining with a Democratic colleague to form the Center Aisle Caucus, a group of congressmen from both parties who worked together toward common-sense solutions. Though under a new name, the CAC still exists today.
Tim chose to retire from Congress in 2012 so he could redirect his attention to his expanding family, health and hobbies, which were primarily following politics and sports. But soon thereafter, a seat opened on the Parkland College Board of Trustees, and Tim pursued yet another campaign to serve an East Central Illinois constituency. He won the seat in 2015 and served it to present day.
Tim Johnson is survived by his brother, Tom; children, Mandy, Beth, Annette, Brett, Buzz, Heather, Kari, Korry and Chris; and 20 grandchildren.
Family and friends will gather in Tim's honor on Saturday, June 4, at 1 p.m. at Lincoln Square Mall, Urbana.