Staff photo by Mark Gilliland / Meigs County softball star Ashley Rogers poses with NFL safety and guest speaker Eric Berry, center, and former Chattanooga Times sports editor Buck Johnson at the 2016 Times Free Press Best of Preps award banquet. Rogers won the annual award named in honor of Johnson as the Chattanooga area's top high school softball player.

To become employed by the Chattanooga News-Free Press, as I first did in 1983, was to learn quite quickly that your archrival, if not your archenemy, was the Chattanooga Times.

The two papers wouldn't merge for another 15 years, and in the early '80s we could not have been less alike in content, philosophy, design or deadlines if we'd been published on different planets. It was the ink-stained wretches' version of Alabama-Auburn.

And as former Crimson Tide football coach Gene Stallings once said, "It's the only rivalry where they hate each other 365 days a year."

Yet all that changed for me the day I met Clay Mills "Buck" Johnson, the longtime sports editor of the Times.

If anyone was ever the perfect definition of Southern gentleman and gentle man, it was Johnson, who passed away Saturday at the age of 94. Calm and curious, tough yet tender, opinionated yet flexible, he was a man's man with a woman's heart. His lone weakness, if you could call it that, was a complete aversion to self-promotion.

As former Times assistant sports editor Stan Crawley told this paper on Saturday: "I owe so much to him for being such a great role model. He was a special man."

Unless you've read his obituary, it's doubtful you previously had any idea just how special. A 1944 graduate of Soddy-Daisy High School, Buck served in the Navy in World War II, his buddies calling him "Soddy."

After the war he earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Chattanooga, took graduate courses at Tennessee in Knoxville, then taught and coached in the Hamilton County school system for 30 years, where he won 12 coach of the year awards in baseball, football and girls' basketball. He was a principal at Falling Water Elementary and the first principal at Allen Elementary.

But it was during his 43 years at the Times, ending with his 1996 retirement, that the ol' Buckaroo truly became a regional treasure, especially through his award-winning "The Buck Stops Here" columns.

"Opinions are great," he would tell me on occasion in his firm but fair way, his silver hair glistening and his blue eyes twinkling. "But only if you can back them up with facts. I try to always remember that."

He was so revered for that mindset that he wound up as the chief press officer for the International Softball Federation, working the Olympic Games in Atlanta; Sydney, Australia; and Athens, Greece.

A single story from those Atlanta Games, the softball actually taking place in Columbus, Georgia: The first game fast approaching, Johnson met with a local man who had worked tourneys at that venue for years. He told Buck that he knew the Olympics would have a big media contingent, so he'd reserved eight seats right behind home plate for the press.

Replied a stunned Johnson: "Sir, I'm going to need 52 seats for every game. Media from all over the world will be here. This is the Olympics. The guy nearly fainted."

Fortunately, a general from nearby Fort Benning intervened, telling the man, "Get back up there and do what he told you."

Such organizational skills and passion for the sport later allowed Johnson to help softball return to the Olympics for 2020 (the Tokyo Games are now set for summer 2021), with that sport and baseball among those removed after the 2008 Games.

"More than 8.5 million women play softball worldwide in 128 countries," Johnson told me four years ago. "It deserves to be in the Olympics."

Said University of Tennessee at Chattanooga softball coach Frank Reed of the worldwide respect for Johnson: "He's not just a Chattanooga legend. He's a legend throughout the whole game of softball."

But for every example of take-charge leadership in his professional life, there was also a caring and compassionate side, as well as a humorous one.

First and foremost were his unwavering love and devotion to Jean, his wife of 67 years who has long struggled with spinal stenosis, and his daughter Cindy Cunnyngham.

There was his passion for Soddy United Methodist Church, where he taught Sunday school for 51 years.

Wrote Soddy UMC pastor J. Todd Kingrea in an email: "According to Buck, the pastor who approached him with the job told him it would 'just be until we can find somebody else.' I jokingly told Buck that I didn't think anybody had been looking all that hard to find anyone else. They already had their man."

My favorite Buck story? I'd written a column a few years ago about a fledgling charity doing all it could to provide clothes for needy elementary school children. When Buck saw me in the press box at a Tennessee football game a few days later, he pulled me aside and said, "My Sunday school class read your column, and we sent a check for all we could to help. We don't have much, but we have a whole lot more than those poor kids."

This is not to say he couldn't zing you from time to time, as all great writers can.

Former Times sports writer Rick Goins sent along this remembrance on Sunday:

"After leaving the driving range to warm up one day, Buck spied a longtime friend and teased:

'He talks in the 70s,

Dresses in the 80s, and

Shoots in the 90s.'

I'm still laughing."

A few years ago, as Johnson reflected on the intended return of softball to the Olympics, he said, "I probably won't live to see that. But if I'm able, I'd love to go."

The official reason there's no Olympics this summer is the coronavirus pandemic.

Me? I just think they couldn't bear to stage the thing without the Buckaroo in the house.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.