Walt Johnson, 87, coached football and baseball at Bakersfield College in the 1960s and '70s before working as the school’s athletic director for eight years.
He passed away Christmas Eve.
He was a respected coach and administrator, but the true measure of the man was his kindness, faith and his commitment to help young people become great both on the field and off, fellow coaches and former players said Tuesday.
Last year Frank Wooldridge held a reunion of BC baseball players at Seven Oaks Country Club and Johnson was the surprise guest.
“When Walt Johnson came down the hallway – it was a secret - the guys couldn’t believe it,” he said.
Wooldridge said Johnson focused on winning like any coach. But he had a rare ability most coaches don’t have - something that commanded respect and demanded that the boys who came to Bakersfield College to play take responsibility for themselves.
“He trusted us. For someone to allow us to create our own abilities and experiment with our own talents — a lot of coaches can’t do that,” Wooldridge said. “He respected his players.”
Johnson’s passing triggered a lot of long calls and remembrances in the larger Bakersfield College sports community, he said.
“I know there are some very, very heavy hearts today because of (the passing of) Walt Johnson,” Wooldridge said.
Current Bakersfield College Athletic Director Sandi Taylor said Johnson retired about the time she came onboard in 1991.
Johnson had been a resource to her ever since.
“He was always very gracious with his time and his expertise,” she said.
As a coach, she agreed, Johnson thought about the future of his charges.
“He never really got caught up in the ego battles. He had a vision for growth and progressively moving forward in the world of athletics,” she said. “It always made me feel better to talk to him. I would love to do more things like he did. I never heard anything bad about Walt Johnson."
Former Californian sports reporter Jeff Evans, who retired this year, remembered Johnson with admiration.
“Walt Johnson was one of the nicest men I dealt with in my career. His integrity and caring for his athletes was off the charts. I’m devastated to hear of his passing,” Evans wrote in a text.
Carl Bowser came to work at Bakersfield College the same year as Johnson and they both served as assistant football coaches.
Johnson was nicknamed “the Crane.”
“He looked more like a cross-country coach than he did a football coach,” Bowser said.
But all who spoke about Johnson Tuesday said he was a man of faith who lived his beliefs.
“Walt was a follower of Christ,” Wooldridge said. “He never said that. But you knew that.”
Bowser said that even after Johnson left Bakersfield College, he gave hours of his own time to help other people.
Johnson counseled men in prisons in Tehachapi and Coalinga, where he coached before he came to Bakersfield College, Bowser said, and the men would come to see him when they got out.
Bowser said it made Johnson proud to see those men stay clean after they were released from prison.
“There’s no perfect person in this country, but if there was it would be Walt Johnson,” Bowser said.