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Death Notice Guestbook

Obituary: Thomas Phillips Johnson / Co-founder of Kirkpatrick & Lockhart law firm

Wednesday, May 24, 2000

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

"He was truly one of a kind," said former governor Dick Thornburgh, learning of the death of Thomas Phillips Johnson, co-founder of Kirkpatrick & Lockhart, Pittsburgh's largest law firm.

Thomas Phillips Johnson in a 1990 painting. 

Mr. Johnson died yesterday morning in Shadyside Hospital of respiratory failure connected with cancer. He was 85.

Lawyer, businessman, philanthropist, sportsman, political activist -- Mr. Johnson was a man active and successful in many fields. His civic positions were legion. But to Pittsburgh, he was best known as longtime co-owner and vice president of the Pittsburgh Pirates, his lifelong passion.

"He hung out with all circles," said his son, Thomas Johnson Jr. of Poultney, Vt. "He got a real kick out of sports writers and baseball players, but he also moved in the Col. Rockwell, Duquesne Club crowd ... He was very proud of his three World Series rings. He was at 55 consecutive Pirates openers and he always took off to go to the World Series."

Mr. Johnson went to just about every Pirates game when he was in town and always kept score.

Born in New Castle, he was the youngest of five children. His father died when he was 4, but his mother, a sportswoman who died in 1972, encouraged his tennis, riding and golf, in which he made it to the semifinals of the Western Pennsylvania junior championship. In his teens, he went to prep school in Washington, D.C.

In 1934, he graduated summa cum laude from Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla. In 1937 he graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, where he was an editor of the Harvard Law Review.

Although recruited by law firms in New York, he returned to Pittsburgh to join Reed, Smith, Shaw & McClay. During World War II, he took a leave of absence to become counsel for the war production group controlled by Col. Willard F. Rockwell. In 1944, he was commissioned an officer in the Navy and served as an assistant to the Secretary of the Navy, attaining the rank of lieutenant commander.

He returned to Reed, Smith, but, in the fall of 1946, he joined six other lawyers to start a new law firm, then called Kirkpatrick, Pomeroy, Lockhart & Johnson, now, Kirpatrick & Lockhart. Their clients included the Rockwell companies.

"TPJ," as he was generally called at the firm, "was a hero figure to generations of younger lawyers," said Peter Kalis, the firm's managing director. "You couldn't walk away from a talk with TPJ without feeling good about yourself, your law firm and the world at large. He was very generous in relating stories about himself and the other founders, and he was an outrageously enjoyable companion at a cocktail party."

Although based at Kirkpatrick & Lockhart, Mr. Johnson came to serve as chairman, president, vice-president, secretary, treasurer or director of more than 50 corporations, most notably Cyclops Corp. and Rockwell International

"Second only to baseball, he loved going down to those moonshots and rolling-out of the space shuttles, meeting all the astronauts," recalled his son.

In 1955, he became president of Lawrence Savings and Trust Co., which subsequently merged with First Seneca Bank and Pennbancorp. When he retired as president in 1985, Pennbancorp was Western Pennsylvania's third-largest bank holding corporation; several mergers later, it is now National City.

In the 1960s, Mr. Johnson joined with golf's Arnold Palmer and horse breeder Del Miller to build and operate a string of Holiday Inns. He was also an original incorporator and continuing director of the Allegheny Club.

But outside the law, business and family spheres, the most important commitment of Mr. Johnson's life was to the Pirates. In the spring of 1946, he and his friend Frank McKinney (then owner of the AAA Indianapolis team) acquired the controlling stock interest in the Pirates and Forbes Field held by the Barney Dreyfuss family. They were soon joined in the ownership by John Galbreath and Bing Crosby.

Dick Groat, Pirates MVP shortstop in 1960, said, "I don't think anybody in the world can have been more pleased with the championship in 1960.... He had gone through hell" as an owner in the late '40s and '50s, when the Pirates scraped the bottom of the league.

As Groat recalls, although Mr. Johnson was the "No. 2 owner" behind the Columbus-based Galbreaths, he was the one who was always in Pittsburgh. "If you needed any advice or help, his door was always open -- even after we got out of baseball."

According to Joe Brown, Pirates general manager from 1955 to 1976, "Tom was a marvelous baseball owner, not only because of his interest but because he didn't interfere." Brown also recalled him as "a strong man who stood up for me against the Galbreaths" in the mid-'60s, when the team was rebuilding and Brown's job was on the line.

"Generally, you judge a man by how he treats you," Brown said. "Tom was a good friend."

In 1984, Mr. Johnson sold his share of the Pirates to the Galbreaths as part of their sale of the team to the group that kept it in Pittsburgh. But he came back into the ownership in 1996 when one of Kevin McClatchy's key investors pulled out. "That was a classy thing to do," said Groat, crediting Mr. Johnson with picking up the financial slack and "helping to keep the Pirates in Pittsburgh."

An interest in politics perhaps came naturally to the man who drove Wendell Wilkie around town in his open convertible during the 1940 election campaign. In the 1960s, Mr. Johnson was treasurer and chief fund-raiser for the Republican Party in Allegheny County. Then county committee chairwoman Elsie Hillman remembered him as an active worker on the John Tabor campaign for mayor.

Mr. Johnson's philanthropies were mainly educational. A trustee of Rollins College since soon after his graduation, in 1988 he gave the college a $750,000 academic building. He was also a trustee of Bethany College in West Virginia, Culver-Stockton College in Canton, Mo., and Phillips University in Enid, Okla.

The latter was named for his grandfather, Thomas W. Phillips. Indeed, educational philanthropy was his family heritage, as the Phillips name of the famous prep schools, Phillips Andover and Phillips Exeter, attests.

Mr. Johnson's wife of 54 years, Jane Moore Johnson, died in 1998.

In addition to his elder son, he is survived by his younger son, James Johnson of Telluride, Colo.; a sister, Winifred Clive of Orlando, Fla.; and three grandchildren.

Friends may call from 7 to 9 p.m. tomorow and 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. Friday at H. Samson Inc., 537 Neville St., Oakland. The funeral will be Saturday at a time and place to be announced.

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