There are only a handful of men beyond one’s own father that have a profound influence in one’s life.
For me, men like Mr. Dick Smith, my high school football coach, and Mr. Dick Buckley, my high school basketball coach, immediately come to mind. I am 63 years old and still respect these two men so much that I cannot bring myself to refer to them by their first names. For me, they will always be Coach Smith and Mr. Buckley. They both earned the right to be respectfully addressed in such a way.
The lessons they taught me about personal pride, dedication to a cause and hard-nosed competition remain with me everyday of my life.
Along with these two men who helped to shape me as a teen, I’m willing add Mr. Vern Johnson, who died Sunday, to the list (for me, never “Vern” but always Mr. Johnson). I first met Mr. Johnson when I went to Kane Junior High School as a ninth-grader in the fall of 1968. I was a product of eight years of St. Callistus Catholic School and felt a little uneasy walking into a building that I had never been into before. As I was walking down the crowded hallway looking for my homeroom, I walked by what I came to know as the Spanish room.
The teacher in front of the doorway did not know me from Adam, but when I walked by she said to me, “My, what a pretty shirt.” What she could not have known was that my mom bought me that yellow, long-sleeved button-down shirt for my first day of school.
The woman who admired my shirt was Mr. Johnson’s wife, Phyllis. I came to know her as my Spanish teacher and I will always be grateful to her for making me feel welcome on my first day of ninth grade. Her husband, Mr. Johnson, became my ninth-grade principal that year and, when I moved to Kane High School in 10th grade, he also moved up to become high school principal, therefore, the administrator in charge for all of my Kane schooling experience.
What can I say about Mr. Johnson that will get you to know him on a personal level? Mr. Johnson was kind. Mr. Johnson demanded respect. Mr. Johnson held no grudges. Mr. Johnson took care of details. Mr. Johnson taught you how to be respectful and responsible.
Mr. Johnson had a way of whistling to himself while jingling his change in his pocket. If he ever came into the cafeteria during lunchtime and stood in the doorway and whistled while jingling his change, the whole cafeteria would quiet down because you all understood that he needed to see a student. There was no need for any other motion on his part. You understood the body language and you gave him the respect that he earned.
This year, I started my 42nd year of teaching and coaching football and track, and I try to live my life in a way that my dad, Coach Smith, Mr. Buckley and Mr. Johnson would be proud of.
Mr. Johnson “showed up early and went home late,” and I try to do the same. Mr. Johnson shut the lights off before he left and turned the water off when he saw it dripping. Mr. Johnson had high expectations of everyone that he associated with, and I try to do the same.
Mr. Johnson left a legacy in Kane that cannot be erased.
As long as our school remains, the quiet whistle and jingling pocket change of Mr. Vern Johnson will be heard as a guiding force of what it means to be from Kane High School. So, thank you, Mr. Johnson, for being you, and thank you to your wife, Mrs. Phyllis Johnson, for being kind and caring enough to compliment my new yellow shirt 49 years ago this month.
(Sirianni, class of 1972, is a Kane High School teacher and coach.)