NEWPORT BEACH — Tom Johnson had expected to meet a longtime friend for lunch at the Newport Harbor Yacht Club but instead was surprised by being welcomed into the fold of an elite group of Newport Beach community leaders.
The Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce and the city on Thursday named the former Daily Pilot publisher the 2011 Citizen of the Year.
Former award winners, made up of city and state officials, prominent business leaders and school officials, had gathered at the club for the surprise announcement.
"I've been sitting here, just looking at the people of this table," Johnson said a few minutes after walking in. "It's an honor to even be considered a part of this group."
Johnson was the publisher of the Daily Pilot for 17 years before leaving in 2008. During his tenure, the newspaper won the California Newspaper Publishers Assn.'s award for general excellence.
After leaving the Pilot, Johnson helped start the Newport-Mesa Daily Voice, an online-only publication. In June, Johnson became publisher of the Newport Beach Independent and the Laguna Beach Independent weekly newspapers. He recently resigned.
The annual Citizen of the Year event has been held for about 60 years.
Recipients are chosen for an ongoing commitment to the community, said Chamber of Commerce President Richard Luehrs.
Johnson was chosen by past years' recipients for his "heart and desire to make Newport Beach a better place to live, work and recreate," Luehrs said.
Johnson's activities include serving twice as chairman of Hoag Hospital's 552 Club, former president of the Costa Mesa Chamber of Commerce, past skipper of the Newport Beach Commodores Club, current board member and past chairman of Visit Newport Beach Inc., serving as president of the board of the Orange County Youth Sports Foundation and on the board the Boys & Girls Club of the Harbor Area, according to a chamber of commerce press release.
A Citizen of the Year dinner and gala is scheduled for June 17 at the Fairmont Newport Beach hotel.
Ralph Rodheim, the current Citizen of the Year, will pass the title to Johnson on June 1.
"Tom really has been a proponent of the city for many years," Rodheim said, citing Johnson's work in various publications, city organizations and businesses.
"Whatever you needed him for, he was always there — and he's one of the funniest persons that I know," he added.
While fellow attendees joked that Johnson was uncharacteristically at a loss for words, the former publisher expressed shock as he let the news sink in over lunch.
Rodheim, who had experienced the same sort of well-intentioned ambush by long-time friends and colleagues last year, knew the feeling.
"It was the single most significant moment in my professional life," Rodheim said. "When I walked through that door, I had tears in my eyes."