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Former central Illinois congressman Tim Johnson dies

Outgoing US Rep. Tim Johnson (R) appears with Rodney Davis (L) in 2012. Johnson, who died Monday, retired from Congress that year after twelve years in office.

URBANA – Former Illinois Congressman Tim Johnson has died.

Johnson’s former chief of staff, Mark Shelden, reported his death on his Facebook page on Tuesday morning. An obituary published on Sunday May 15 in the News-Gazette and at the Renner-Wikoff funeral home website says the 75-year-old Johnson died Monday night at Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana, surrounded by family and friends. 

According to the News-Gazette obituary, friends and family of Tim Johnson will gather in his memory at Lincoln Square Mall, Saturday, June 4 at 1 P.M.  As a congressman and in the years after he retired, Johnson could be frequently found walking at the downtown Urbana mall, as part of his strict fitness regimen. 

Johnson served for 12 years as a Republican congressman in central Illinois, representing the state’s 15th District. Before that, he was a member of the Illinois House for 24 years and served as an Urbana city alderman from 1971 to 1975, in the seat once filled by his father, Robert Johnson.

The elder Johnson was also a Republican Party chairman in Champaign County. In a 2013 interview, Tim Johnson said his father was his political mentor, emphasizing hard work, organization and honesty.

But Johnson says other family members were involved in politics as well. His paternal grandfather was close to the family of Harry Truman during his Kansas City days, and his maternal grandfather worked for Illinois Congressman Frank Funk in the 1920s.

”I don’t ever remember a dinnertime with my grandparents or my dad and mom when politics and government and so forth wasn’t discussed,” said Johnson. “It was an active part of our everyday life.”

Congressional Career

As a congressman, Johnson served on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Agriculture Committee, and chaired the Agriculture Subcommittee on Rural Development, Research, Biotechnology and Foreign Agriculture.

As a congressman, Johnson was known for making cold calls to his constituents — 100 or more of them a day, although not all of them answered the phone — as a way of keeping in touch with the concerns in his district.

“I think a good many of my colleagues spend too much time talking to each other, and not enough time talking to the people they represent,” Johnson told the Los Angeles Times in 2010. “This year, more than any year I’ve seen, people really are angry that government is not listening to them. I want to make sure they know I am.”

Johnson also helped found the Congressional Center Aisle Caucus in 2005 with New York Democrat Steve Israel. The caucus sought common ground and promoted civility between opposing sides in Congress on various issues.

Leaving Congress

Johnson retired from Congress in 2012, citing family concerns, announcing his decision just days after winning the GOP nomination for another term in the primary election. Republican leaders chose Rodney Davis of Taylorville to take his place.

But as he prepared to leave Congress, Johnson said Davis and Democratic candidate David Gill were not living up to Center Aisle standards in their campaigning. At a news conference, Johnson said the type of negative campaign conducted by and on behalf of Republican Rodney Davis and Democrat David Gill created a harmful political atmosphere, “where nobody trusts Congress, nobody trusts the state legislature to work with each other. We can’t work as R’s and D’s together for common matters. And I think a good deal of that derives from the negativity of the campaigns.”

Urbana Native

Johnson grew up in Urbana, where he attended Urbana High School. He later studied at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and at the University of Illinois, graduating with a law degree in 1972.

After retiring from Congress, Johnson continued to hold elected office, serving on the board of Parkland College in Champaign from 2015 until his death.

(This story was updated on Wednesday, May 11, to note Mark Shelden’s announcement of Johnson’s death, and again Monday May 11th, to note the memorial service, and note that Johnson died at Carle Hospital, not at home as previously reported. – JM 9:55 AM 5/16/22)

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Jim Meadows

Jim Meadows has been covering local news for WILL Radio since 2000, with occasional periods as local host for Morning Edition and All Things Considered and a stint hosting WILL's old Focus talk show. He was previously a reporter at public radio station WCBU in Peoria.

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Severe storms possible Thursday evening and overnight

From the National Weather Service in Central Illinois: A line of t’storms will affect the area late Thursday afternoon into the overnight hours. Some severe storms are in the forecast, with damaging wind gusts and large hail. Stay weather aware and be ready to take shelter when storms approach.