The name of the game


After 40 years teaching in Catholic schools — 39 of them at his current school, St. Raphael Catholic School in Crystal — Dave Johnson could be forgiven for thinking about retirement. In fact, his wife, Elvira, asks him when he plans to stop teaching. But Johnson, St. Raphael’s athletic director, says he’d miss his kids too much.

“Being around children is the most precious part of my day,” he said. “I’m so thankful to God that he brought me into education.”

His students say the feeling is mutual.

“Mr. J. has all the traits of a good Christian,” said St. Raphael eighth-grader Avion Judson. “I’ve played soccer for three years, and he’s been behind me to motivate and encourage me.”

Eighth-grader Isabel Cronin agrees.

“Mr. J. is kind-hearted to everyone he meets,” she said. “He’s the most amazing person — he should be a saint.”

Doubtlessly, the humble Johnson would object to sainthood, but it’s easy to understand his students’ affection and admiration. Johnson’s approach to sports and physical fitness is rooted in the Christian virtues of kindness and humility, and his demeanor is gentle and calm.

“It’s not about softball or soccer or basketball,” he said. “It’s about serving our Lord. God has given us the gift of health. When we use it, we glorify him.”

Johnson says he knows too well that the outside world is only interested in the final scoreboard – who wins and who loses – so at St. Raphael, Johnson measures success in terms of effort. He sets “effort goals” to see how many times the soccer team can get the ball around the midline or whether each player can say one encouraging thing to each teammate during the game.

“When the season is over, they’ll forget the score,” he said, “but they’ll remember how they treated each other.”

Johnson’s own story is one of faith, perseverance and love. He grew up poor in north Minneapolis — “We were powdered-milk children,” he said — one of six siblings raised by a single mother who couldn’t afford to send them to Catholic high school, let alone college. He’d gone to grade school at St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Minneapolis where his mother worked as a cook, and the religious sisters were “kind and loving.” In contrast, public high school was harsh, and Johnson often came home from Patrick Henry High School in tears.

Still, he found role models there who would change his life: Mrs. Timmerman, his English teacher, and Mr. Canham, his running coach and biology teacher.

“They weren’t my teachers,” he said. “They were the light of Christ to me.”

Although he knew college was out of reach, Johnson was desperate to become a teacher just like his beloved mentors. After graduation, he worked three jobs and enrolled at North Hennepin Technical School.

Then he discovered that Augsburg College provided scholarships to inner-city kids. He played basketball at Augsburg and received his bachelor’s degree in elementary and secondary education in physical education and health. He’s still proud to call himself an Auggie.

For 20 years, Johnson taught science as well as physical education at St. Raphael, and he coaches soccer and softball. He is a high school basketball coach at Irondale High School in New Brighton and has coached at public and private high schools all over the Twin Cities.

“Public school is hard because I can’t talk about my faith,” he said. “But one of the priests gave me some good advice. He said, ‘Dave, sometimes people want to see the light of Christ rather than hear it.’ ”

Seth Pugh, a third-grade teacher at St. Raphael and one of Johnson’s former students, recently watched one of Johnson’s high school basketball games and marveled at his gentle authority.

“He was loving toward them, and they bought in,” he said, recalling a strategy that hasn’t changed much since Pugh’s own grade school days. “He wasn’t going to yell or punish you, but we wanted to do the right thing. We wanted to make him proud.”

So when will Johnson retire and put his feet up?

“I don’t know what I’d be retiring from,” he said. “I don’t see teaching as a job; it really is a vocation. God’s blessed me with good health. So I’ll listen to God. He’ll tell me when.”

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