By Lynette Norris
Greene Publishing, Inc.
Growing up in Indiana, just east of Columbus, Ohio, Sidney Johnson had always dreamed of being a professional railroad man, studying engineering in college toward that goal, and working his way through school by getting his pilot’s license, delivering new airplanes for Piper out of Florida and flying shipments of surfboards on the weekends.
As he told his story to the Rotary Club, it seemed that everything about his life was something a little larger than life and definitely out of the ordinary.
After college, he served in Vietnam, and then was recruited by the NSA to work with White House communications, but recruitment didn’t mean an automatic “in.” The selection process he went through was long and involved, including a background check “that went all the way back to your fourth grade teacher,” he told the club. After such microscopic investigations and an intense screening process that included question after question after question about personal history and habits, very personal queries about every aspect of life imaginable, the initial group of about 140 recruits had dwindled down to three.
However, he made it through, and was assigned to the White House to provide the radio, telephone and cryptography service for President Nixon wherever he went. He was the one who would set up the only two microphones allowed at the podium, that would provide feeds to the press.
The reason for the restriction was the president’s safety. Large, tube-shaped devices pointed directly at the face could easily conceal something dangerous, so anything allowed that close to Commander-in-Chief was going to be equipment the Secret Service owned, operated, inspected and set up themselves, especially during that time of the Vietnam controversy, riots, street marches and social unrest.
Any trips the president undertook required days, or maybe weeks of meticulous planning and preparation, everything from mapping out motorcade routes, to knowing where to find the right type of fuel at each stop for Air Force One, to assessing speaking location for security purposes, to setting up the radio network for the Secret Service, to inspecting the hotels where the president and his entourage would be staying, to knowing where the hospitals were located and planning out routes to get there.
“It was not something that could be done in one day,” he said
One the highlights of his White House job was his trip around the world with Vice President Spiro Agnew in 42 days.
In 1972, his military service was up, but despite being heavily recruited by the NSA to stay on, he left the White House world to pursue his dream of working with the railroads, something he would do for the next 35 years.
However, it was anything but a settled life. He and his wife Jeri moved on average about once every 18 months, and their son grew up in cities all over the U.S.
“The railroad company thought nothing of telling you on Friday afternoon about your new job in another town Monday morning,” he said.
During his 35-year-career with the railroads, he saw a lot of changes, mostly in the form of mergers. In 1965, there were 47 railroad companies; today, there are only five large lines left. In fact, it was because of a merger that he was able to retire at age 54.
However, in spite of all the moving around the country he had already done, he still wanted to travel. With their son now grown, he and his wife began traveling all around the world and visited every single continent, including the Mongolian Mountains and nine trips to Africa.
But even after seeing the wonders of the world, he has a fondness for the railroad days, attending a railroad convention every year in Terre Haute, Indiana.
“That’s the neat thing about Rotary,” said Pete Bucher, Rotary Club President, after Johnson concluded his presentation. “Everybody has a unique story of who they are.”