Former State Auditor Dick Johnson was one of those rare politicians with a storehouse of seemingly unlimited knowledge and a sense of public purpose larger than his ego. 

He died recently at 87 following a decadelong battle with Alzheimer’s. I doubt Iowa will see a public man of his caliber again. 

Johnson was auditor from 1979 until 2003. As a young reporter, I covered his transformation of the auditor’s office into one of the premier agencies of state government. 

Gov. Robert Ray named Johnson, a 43-year-old accountant, to replace State Auditor Lloyd Smith after Smith died unexpectedly. Johnson was the first CPA (certified public accountant) to serve as state auditor, and his appointment proved to be one of the best decisions of Ray’s 14 years as governor.

Johnson took a pay cut to take the job, which at the time paid $30,000. He’d been making $37,000 a year as director of administration for the Iowa Department of Transportation. It was the second time he took a pay cut for public service. In 1968, Johnson left a promising career at Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Co. to work for the DOT at lower pay. 

Johnson lived most of his life in Sheldahl, a community of about 300 people at the tri-county corners of Polk, Story and Boone counties where he was city clerk and later mayor from 1959 to 1975. 

He grew up in Spencer, Neb., a town of 600 people near the South Dakota border, and wound up at Drake University where he earned an accounting degree. As I once wrote, Johnson was one of those people who successfully pursued the career a high school aptitude test mapped out for him.

What he hadn’t expected was a political career. But once he became auditor, he brought the whole family into the business. During his first campaign, wife Marjorie and their four children –  DeAnn, JoAnn, LeAnn and David – joined him at political meetings, sometimes singing patriotic songs as Dad, who could not carry a tune, ran the sound system. 

Somehow, Johnson also found time to be active in his church and the Iowa National Guard.

He told me in 1979 that because he always followed his conscience, “I can’t say I’ve ever had a decision that’s been difficult.” 

He continued to follow that ethic as auditor, even when it brought him in conflict with high-powered people. 

One of Johnson’s early state audits was critical of Joseph May, head of the Iowa National Guard and Johnson’s part-time boss, for May’s private use of guard aircraft. Another audit forced DOT chief Victor Preisser, Johnson’s recent boss, to repay $1,600 in travel expenses.

At the time, Johnson told me he really liked Preisser and said most incidents of unjustified expenses can usually be traced to a situation where someone felt cheated by the system. Preisser, he added, was miffed because the state comptroller had refused to pay for what the DOT chief believed were legitimate dinner expenses with his governing board. 

Johnson, along with state Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald, is credited with forcing Iowa to adopt GAAP (generally accepted accounting principles), which make it possible for outsiders to assess the quality of state finances.

They did that over the objections of many politicians, including Gov. Terry Branstad. 

Johnson had a long-running battle with Branstad over how to manage and report state finances that began when Johnson criticized the governor’s use of public aircraft to attend political meetings.

Much of the dispute focused on Branstad’s creation and management of a statewide fiber optic network, which the governor initially said would cost about $50 million but wound up costing $500 million, and which never lived up to expectations as a tool for advancing education and cultural programs. 

Writing about that dispute in 1994, Register political columnist James Flansburg created a sentence that serves well as a summation of the auditor’s life.

“Without doubt,” Flansburg wrote, “Johnson’s credibility and his reputation for probity and honesty are head and shoulders above those of every ranking politician in the state.”