In an event marked more by applause and laughter than mourning, political, media and business leaders lauded publisher John H. Johnson during his funeral here Monday.
The pioneering publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines was 87 when he died of congestive heart failure on Aug. 8.
About 1,500 people attended the 21/2-hour service at the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel on the University of Chicago campus. They included former president Bill Clinton, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, commentator Tavis Smiley and Playboy Enterprises chief executive Christie Hefner. The funeral closed with a benediction by the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson.
Born poor in Arkansas, Johnson used a $500 loan in 1946 to launch his magazines. He built a publishing empire and also owned a cosmetics company. The growth of his magazines made him one of the richest and most influential black leaders in the nation.
"We were especially proud of John in Arkansas," said Clinton, who awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996. He noted that Johnson was part of the "Good Suit Club" of prominent former Arkansas residents who met periodically in the 1980s to advise state politicians. "He never thought to lift himself up by knocking someone else down. He basically wanted the same [success] for everybody."
Daley called Johnson a close friend and confidante with whom he would share secrets. "He understood this city better than anyone," the mayor said.
Desiree Rogers, president of Peoples Gas, described Johnson as "my best friend's dad" and noted that as a young girl in New Orleans poring over her grandmother's copies of Ebony, she never dreamed she would one day be sharing bubble- gum ice cream -- "his favorite" -- with Johnson at his home.
Earl Graves, founder and publisher of Black Enterprise Magazine, described Johnson as both a tough businessman "who didn't suffer fools, period" and a warm-hearted supporter.
"He was a hard-nosed competitor, but he was class all the way," Graves said, recalling a meeting where Johnson called him into his office and proposed that the two become friends.
The testimonials praised Johnson's contribution to the civil rights movement, which included publishing photos of the body of Emmett Till, a young Chicago boy killed in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman, that helped to attract national attention to the movement. He also quietly provided money for civil rights efforts.
"He was an authentic American hero whose work will be respected and dissected for years to come," Smiley said. "This media empire is still number one and still 100 percent black-owned."
Outside the chapel, an overflow crowd of hundreds of supporters of various ages and races sat in the shade and listened to the service as it was broadcast on loudspeakers.
Doretha Brown and Jennifer Patton, both 23, work for Johnson's Fashion Fair Cosmetics company at a downtown department store. They both wear Fashion Fair make-up and read Ebony and Jet.
"He was a great man," said Brown, who was wearing purple Fashion Fair eye shadow that matched her purple blouse. "He did amazing things."