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Johnson set to retire after 36 years as teacher, coach

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Nancy Johnson 1978 yearbook staff photo.2 / 2

Dressed in a lime-green sweat suit, Nancy Johnson doesn't look like someone who is ready to retire from 36 years of teaching. The Wadena-Deer Creek High School physical education teacher and former coach is in her power-walking mode as she motivates her phy ed students to run laps.

"Come on! Let's kick it in! Go! Go! Go!," encouraged Johnson in her strong, coaching voice.

Along with teaching physical education and health, most people in the community may remember Johnson most as the head girl's basketball coach when it was Wadena High School.

"She was one talented lady," recalled Terry Olafson, who was the assistant girl's basketball coach with Johnson. "She was a great coach -- one of the best coaches to coach in Wadena. She was a great athlete and fierce competitor, too."

Olafson described Johnson as a teacher who was fair, but tough at times. She demanded respect and believed in discipline.

"She cared about the kids, but you were there at school to learn. That was her philosophy," Olafson said, who also taught English at WHS.

Lowell Roisum was the assistant principal when Johnson started teaching health and physical education in 1976 at WHS. He recalled her dedication to teaching junior high students not only about the importance of health and being physically fit, but a decorum of respect, both in school and in life.

"Nancy got along well with the kids in the classroom and on the court, even though she was a hard bargainer," he said.

Johnson stressed life's lessons throughout her teaching career. Often, you would find her standing in the doorway of her classroom, asking each student: "What's the password?" Students would eventually learn it was: "Be respectful."

"I want kids to understand what respect is; to not only be respectful of me, but of their classmates as well," Johnson said. "Respect is one of those qualities I think kids are sometimes lacking."

Jen Walter graduated from Wadena High School in 1981 and was a standout athlete in basketball and a two-time All-State softball player. Johnson invited Walter to play on the B-squad as an eighth-grader. Walter then played on the varsity from ninth grade on as a point guard.

"She was a passionate, intense and demanding coach," Walter recalled. "She also had a good set of lungs on her and wasn't afraid to use them. She demanded perfection, but taught you the skills to execute it. She was a strategist, knew the game forwards and backwards and taught it to anyone within shouting distance. She was relentless with referees too."

Today, Walter is the head softball coach at The College of St. Scholastica in Duluth. She's spent eight seasons there, building a tradition of winning to the Saints program. There's little doubt in Walter's mind that Johnson has influenced her coaching career.

"There are probably many people and coaches and events that have influenced me and made me the coach I am today," Walter said. "However, I doubt it's purely coincidental that I share many of the same traits and qualities as Nancy."

Born in Carrington, N.D., Nancy Anderson grew up playing sports, being a gym rat and learning the importance of education. Her father was a high school social studies teacher, coach and later a school superintendent. Her mother was a band and English teacher.

Johnson's competitive edge developed at an early age. She was the first girl to play Babe Ruth baseball in North Dakota. "I could play just as good as the boys," recalled Johnson, who learned how to throw a fastball and sink jump shots from her dad and brothers. "I loved going to my dad's practices and learning about sports," she added.

Johnson attended the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, where she received a bachelor's and master's degree in health and physical education. While at UND, she excelled in several sports, capping it off by receiving the Grace Rhonemus Award in 1973 as the college's top female athlete for that year. A four-year letter winner as a guard in basketball and 1973 Most Valuable Player, Johnson also lettered twice in field hockey and volleyball as an outside hitter and earned one letter in softball as shortstop. She also served as graduate assistant and assistant coach of women's basketball for one year.

In 1999, Johnson received UND's highest honor bestowed upon an athlete: She was inducted into the school's prestigious Hall of Fame.

"The Hall of Fame was always something awarded to the 'great' athletes and coaches, such as Phil Jackson, Jim LeClair, Pat Warcup [Johnson's first college basketball coach], and Nancy Nelson [Johnson's best friend and star athlete]," she said. "I never included myself in that category, so to receive that award was the greatest athletic accomplishment."

After teaching and coaching in Hankinson, N.D., for three years and earning a state Class B girls basketball title while there, Johnson headed east to Wadena in 1976. Her plan was to stay for a few years to gain experience, then onto fulfilling her dream of becoming a college coach.

What was some college's loss was Wadena's gain, as Johnson stayed on for the next 33 years. She was the basketball coach from 1976 to 1986, where she coached many great athletes.

"Coaching was very rewarding. I had good support from parents and I had some great teams," said Johnson, who resigned from coaching due to her young family. She said the long hours took a toll on her two young children, so she ultimately chose to be a mom first and give up her love of coaching. She later would return to coaching basketball as an assistant.

Johnson looks forward to retirement, as she and her husband, Craig, are building a new home on Otter Tail Lake. They also plan to travel and just relax, she said.

"It will seem strange not to set the alarm clock, look for my keys and try to decide what to wear to school," Johnson said, with a hearty laugh. "I have enjoyed my 33 years here at WDC and hope to keep in touch with people. I won't fade away ... I'll always be a coach in the stands."