If you don't know Tom Johnson by sight, you may remember him by his deep, mellifluous voice heard for 25 years on KFAB.
“TJ” did almost everything there, including the national scoreboard after Husker football games. He would give scores by conferences and by Top 20 rankings, and then would say, with college fight songs playing in the background: “In games of interest ... ”
For bettors, that was code.
Pencils in hand, they would look at their bookie sheets, which included point spreads. Tom — with a widely circulated weekly sheet in front of him — would conveniently announce the scores in the order that the games were listed.
“I was told that people would stop talking in bars,” he said, “so it was quiet while everyone marked their sheets.”
Lyell Bremser, the legendary Husker play-by-play announcer and station general manager, found out about it and put a stop to it — temporarily.
“He felt we were aiding and abetting gambling,” Tom said. “But there were so many phone calls of complaint that it was reinstated.”
Johnson retired Friday — not from the radio station, which he left in 1993, but from the Nebraska Lottery. He has spent the past 20 years there, departing as media and event manager in the Nebraska Department of Revenue.
Retirement will be something very different for him. He is 75 and has worked since he was 14. “I've never liked being away from work for more than a couple of days.”
While a stock boy in a men's haberdashery in Pueblo, Colo., he heard on the radio that a station was looking for a high school student for weekend work. He eventually was hired full time and hosted his own show, “Rockin' with TJ.”
During four years in the Navy, he broadcast aboard ship and from shore, and then worked for eight years at stations in Indiana. He was visiting a friend in Omaha when he heard of an opening at KBON, where he worked for a year before joining KFAB in 1968.
His voice became widely recognized across the Midlands on that 50,000-watt station. He served stints as farm director and news director, as well as in sports.
Tom said he enjoyed getting to know Nebraska coaches, and especially liked Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer.
When Husker coach and athletic director Bob Devaney entered the Legion Club in Lincoln, Tom recalled, the place would respectfully quiet down — but just for a few moments. “Bob was a hoot.”
Despite, so to speak, abetting the bettors on the scoreboard show, Tom said he himself rarely bet on games.
Through volunteering with Junior Achievement, he got to know a high school student named Alexander Payne, who became a “runner,” collecting game results for KFAB's scoreboard show.
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
If Tom couldn't have predicted that the teenager would become an Oscar-winning filmmaker, he at least figured he would be an achiever.
“I knew the kid had a lot on the ball,” Tom said. “We've maintained a relationship.”
Tom, in fact, will take part in Alexander's roast at the Omaha Press Club on Nov. 22, when he is humorously installed as a “Face on the Barroom Floor.”
TJ actually retired three years ago, and co-workers said farewell. He was gone for a week and didn't like it, and management invited him back.
No, he didn't buy tickets in the Nebraska Lottery — employees aren't allowed to do so — but he said he has bought lottery tickets in other states.
He has four children, nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Almost a year ago, he married his lady friend of 18 years, Darla Grow.
He lives on a golf course in Lincoln and maintains a 600-bottle wine cellar. Golf and wine are “my passions,” he said, and will get more of his attention.
Everyone, bettors included, has instant access to football scores now. Though he didn't bet on “games of interest” and wasn't allowed to buy his recent employer's product, hardworking Tom Johnson figures he has won life's lottery.
“It's been fun,” he said. “I couldn't have asked for a better life.”