November 11, 2004 in Voices

Teacher, coach Elmer Johnson expected the best, gave his best

By The Spokesman-Review
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» To view a short multimedia feature to Elmer Johnson, go to tributes and follow the link packaged with the story. To order a compact disc of a rich media presentation of this Tributes feature, contact The Spokesman-Review at (509) 459-5416 or e-mail

The drunken student being escorted from Ward Maurer field was furious and rattled off some choice words for West Valley High School Principal Elmer Johnson.

“I’m going to get my father to come back here and beat you up,” the boy said. At least, that’s how witnesses recall the dustup, now 30 years gone by.

Johnson, who had easily ejected the boy by pinching the teen’s shoulder and marching him to the gate, squared his shoulders and rose to the threat of an angry dad.

“Elmer said, ‘If he comes here, tell him to pack a lunch, because it’s going to be a long night,’ ” recalled Larry Schreck, a West Valley alum and friend of Johnson’s.

Johnson, a short but stout Swede raised in the Pasadena Park neighborhood, had a reputation for being tough as nails. He believed he could plow through any challenge, provided he worked hard enough. He expected others to do the same. That philosophy carried him 85 years until a couple of weeks ago when he lost a long fight with cancer. Johnson died Oct. 22.

“He genuinely cared about kids and genuinely cared about his teachers,” said Loretta Block, whom Johnson hired to be West Valley’s debate coach in 1972. “He was always in the halls. He was never stuck in his office. He was always talking to the kids. He was at all the games.”

Kids, especially the ones Johnson coached, were drawn to Elmer, himself a standout athlete, Dorothy Johnson said of her husband. Elmer Johnson’s first teaching job was in Metaline Falls, Wash., where he taught and coached the middle school kids, Dorothy said. She remembers looking out her kitchen window in Metaline Falls and seeing the members of the basketball team waiting on the fence for Elmer Johnson to come outside.

The couple stayed in Metaline Falls one school year, then Elmer Johnson hired on with West Valley School District, where he worked 33 years until retirement in 1977. He taught math at the Millwood grade school, initially, and coached basketball. He also taught math in high school.

Elmer Johnson had the distinction of being the interim varsity basketball coach the year before the school hired coaching great Jud Heathcote, son Bob Johnson said jokingly.

Later, at West Valley High School, Elmer Johnson was an assistant coach with the football team and the head coach for varsity baseball. He built homes on the side to supplement his income.

“He was a unique individual in that he expected the best, but he also showed you how to be the best,” said Tom McGill, who played on Johnson’s baseball and football teams. “He didn’t have to chew you out. All he had to do was look at you.”

Likewise, when a player did something right, Elmer Johnson would give him a confident wink that was priceless.

Elmer Johnson’s athletic feats were known in the high school. He played left guard on the school football team as a teenager. Later, he played for the Cheney Normal School Savages, now Eastern Washington University.

But there was more to Elmer Johnson than sports. He flew 65 missions over Europe as a bombardier in World War II and had the medals to prove it. While fighting the war, he worked on his teaching degree through correspondence with EWU. Dorothy Johnson said her husband didn’t reveal his war background to most people.

Elmer Johnson also had a soft spot for problem kids, Dorothy Johnson said. It wasn’t uncommon for a student in trouble to call the Johnson house late at night to hash out his problems with Elmer Johnson.

There were no alternative schools for kids who fell through the cracks at that time, no GED programs. Many kids flunked out of school. When they did, they were gone. Elmer Johnson hated to see a young life ruined.

“If they weren’t going to school, he’d get them out of bed, get them dressed and tell them to go to school,” said Bob Johnson.

In truth, Elmer Johnson wasn’t a role model teen, Dorothy Johnson said. He was always getting into fights. Dorothy met Elmer when she was a senior at Rogers High School. Elmer Johnson was a junior. It was the only year he was away from West Valley.

“He tried out for junior dramatic club. I was in charge of initiations,” Dorothy Johnson said. “I made him scrub a garage door with a toothbrush.”

After high school, the two dated some, but Dorothy Johnson wasn’t sure they were serious when Elmer Johnson left for World War II. She spent the war taking telegraph messages for Western Union and happened to be working when Elmer Johnson sent a message to his parents announcing that he was coming home.

Several days later, Elmer Johnson was standing in the Western Union office asking to see Dorothy. They married shortly thereafter. As always, Elmer Johnson vowed to do his best. He did so for 59 years.

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