In 1972, Dr. Timothy Johnson sat down in an old John Deere warehouse, which was still in disarray from being converted into the WCVB-TV (Channel 5) studios.
He was about to film his first television segment on health care for a series titled “House Call.”
“They were still hanging up the lights,” Johnson said. “They sat me down and said, ‘Good luck.’ It was really quite amazing now that I look back on it.”
The studio on Route 128 in Needham is much different than it was 40 years ago.
Johnson, long-time medical editor for the station, has made a change, too.
After working with the station for four decades, he has decided it is time to hang up his stethoscope.
“I feel very, very fortunate to have been a part of television when it was in the golden era,” Johnson said. “I worked with some real giants in the field and had a great opportunity to do what I considered was teaching the public.”
Johnson said he never thought of himself as a television star. Rather, he viewed the audience as his patients and aimed to deliver information in much the same way he would speak to a family member, he said.
“I got to kind of do what I always wanted to do, in a way that extended my reach,” Johnson said.
Johnson had always wanted to be a doctor, but had a unique start to his career.
He grew up in Illinois and graduated in 1963 from the North Park Seminary, with plans to become a Protestant minister.
But he couldn’t shake his interest in the medical field.
He graduated from Augustana College and Albany Medical College, and holds a master’s degree in public health from Harvard University.
“I thought I was going to be a family doctor in a small town. That was my dream,” Johnson said. “My life took a very different turn.”
Johnson was hired as the director of emergency services at North Shore Medical Center Union Hospital in Lynn and moved to Massachusetts with his wife, Nancy.
Johnson then worked at Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital, and got the job as the host of “House Call.”
“I was kind of leery of the whole thing but agreed to try it,” he said.
Johnson would discuss a particular topic with a physician or nurse on air and then take questions from viewers.
“It was really simple television compared to what they do today, but it all started with that small half-hour program,” he said.
Johnson didn’t know it at the time, but the Emmy-award winning “House Call” was only the beginning.
During Johnson’s career as medical editor for WCVB-TV, he also received the Sword of Hope award from the American Cancer Society in 2001 and the Gabriel Award in 1999, for a project on Alzheimer’s disase.
“One of the early projects that I’m very pleased with was our special three-hour programming on Alzheimer’s, when it was still a very misunderstood disease,” Johnson said.
Johnson received the Bradford Washburn Award from the Museum of Science in 1998, an honor he shares with Jacques-Yves Cousteau, Walter Cronkite, and Jane Goodall.
ABC News then hired Johnson as the network’s medical editor. He reported for “World News Tonight”, “Nightline”, “20/20”, and “Good Morning America”.
He retired from ABC News in 2010.
He continued to work with WCVB-TV, going into the studio about once a week to tape projects and film live segments, he said.
Although he will continue to do occasional stories for Channel 5, Johnson said he is ready to start his retirement.
“I just had this gut and head feeling that it was the right time,” Johnson said. I’m 76 years old and 40 years is a nice round number.”
He plans to spend a lot of time with his four grandchildren now that he has extra time on his hands.
Johnson also serves as assisting minister of the Community Covenant Church in West Peabody.
He became very passionate about health care reform and will continue to serve on the board of directors for the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, which supports the projects of medical students, he said. In 2010 he wrote a book titled “The Truth About Getting Sick In America.”
But he will never forget his roots.
“Channel 5 has been my TV family for 40 years,” Johnson said. “I just feel immense affection and loyalty to the place. It’s just a wonderful place to be.”