When Ben’s Chili Bowl was struggling to stay afloat during the early weeks of the pandemic this spring, Bruce Johnson, the veteran anchor and reporter for WUSA9, did a report on how the iconic U Street NW restaurant, among many others, was in danger of closing. It was one of countless pieces Johnson has reported during his lengthy career covering local businesses—as well as politics, crime, and social issues in the District.
Johnson’s report on the effects of the pandemic on local businesses owned by people of color helped raise awareness of the economic toll inflicted by COVID-19.
“People didn’t realize our business had gone down 90 percent,” says Vida Ali, a co-owner of the family-owned eatery. Johnson’s piece, among a wave of others from local and national outlets, increased public awareness of the restaurant’s troubles—and helped it keep going with online sales, takeout, and limited hours, both on U Street and at Ben’s second location, on H Street NE.
In October, Richard Dyer, WUSA’s president and general manager, told Johnson he wanted to announce the longtime journalist’s retirement and follow up the next month with tributes. Johnson, who’s worked as a D.C. television journalist for 44 years, says he told Dyer he’d received plenty of journalism and civic awards, but “who wouldn’t want to be on the wall outside of Ben’s?” Without telling Johnson, Dyer called Virginia Ali, who opened Ben’s with her late husband in 1958 and has known Johnson for more than four decades. The family immediately embraced the idea, her daughter-in-law Vida says.
The series of murals on the side of Ben’s is informally known as the “wall of excellence,” honoring individuals for contributions over an extended period of time. With more than four decades of reporting and community service, Johnson has earned his spot, Virginia says. “Bruce Johnson has kept the Washington community informed for more than forty years, and I am very happy to include his mural on our wall,” she said in a text message. “He is an amazing journalist that truly loves our beautiful city.”
Working mostly at night to try to keep the depiction a secret, artist Aniekan Udofia began painting on Nov. 19 and finished the mural in three days. On Nov. 22, Johnson was summoned to Ben’s on the pretense that Virginia Ali wanted to talk to him.
A WUSA camera crew captured Johnson’s overwhelmed reaction when he set eyes on his mural, featured on a wall that includes depictions of Barack and Michelle Obama, Chuck Brown, Dave Chappelle, and fellow local news legend Jim Vance.
Johnson, 70, is shopping a memoir and plans on remaining active in D.C., working with groups that help young people and perhaps teaching.
The mural means more to him than the 22 Emmys he’s won in his career, and inspires him to keep achieving, Johnson says. “I look at the people on this wall, and I think, what am I doing here? I’ve got some work to do.”