Working my way through it

By Racey Burden | Published Saturday, December 31, 2016

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Sometimes the closer you are to a story, the more difficult it can be to write.

In January, I wrote a long feature on the family of Craig Johnson, the Precinct 2 Justice of the Peace. Craig’s wife Terri, who formerly held the same position, was killed in a car accident in 2014.

ALL IN THE FAMILY – Precinct 2 Justice of the Peace Craig Johnson took over the position after the death of wife Terri in 2014. Johnson stands in the courtroom with their sons, Coy and Harlan. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

What didn’t make it into that story is that when I was a kid, my family lived down the street from the Johnsons. I used to drive our golf cart to their house to babysit the boys, Coy and Harlan. Craig and Terri were good friends to my parents, and Coy was very close to my little sister. They grew up together.

The day Terri died I was in Norman, Okla., driving to a friend’s house for a Thunder watch party. They were in the playoffs. My mom called while I was on the way to the party, and I could tell right away something was wrong.

When she told me about Terri’s death I pulled over into a gas station parking lot to cry. I hadn’t talked to Terri in a long time, but some people you just remember fondly forever, and she’s one of them. I was also crying for the rest of the family – Craig and the boys. They deserved to have Terri with them.

The idea for writing a story about the Johnsons’ life after Terri’s death actually came about because of a voicemail. I was trying to call Craig at work for another story – I don’t remember what exactly; I think it was a wreck I needed an ID for – and heard Terri’s voice instead. The office voicemail message was still Terri, the other Judge Johnson.

I pitched the idea to our editor Kristen as basically, “It’s kind of cool that Craig is JP and Terri used to be JP, and maybe he would be willing to talk about what that’s like?” I called Craig and left a message with a similar description. When he didn’t call me back for a while, I was sure it was because I’d managed to mangle the request for an interview and offend him somehow. Luckily, he was just busy.

Craig was willing to talk about becoming justice of the peace after his wife’s death, but the story ended up being much more about the grief process and how all three Johnson men coped, and are still coping, with the loss of Terri. Craig took me out to the lunch with the boys one day, and I don’t remember asking them more than a question or two. They all talked openly about what their lives are like now, the good and the bad, without much prompting from me.

Writing that story took me about a week, much longer than I work on most pieces. I was terrified to put it out there. I was terrified to get any of it wrong, because I know the Johnsons, Craig and Terri and their boys, and how much they mean to so many people in this county. I think it turned out well, but I still don’t like to read it. I always wonder if it’s good enough.

The thing I hope I captured in that story, which we ultimately titled “Working through it,” is hope itself. Craig described well how their lives moved from paralyzing grief to gradual joy, how the space between moments of crushing sadness grew longer and longer, how it’s OK to miss a person with all your heart and still move on with your life. There’s always hope for a better tomorrow.

Racey Burden is a Messenger reporter.

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