Dick Johnson, center, was honored at halftime during the 2008 Homecoming football game for his longtime devotion to media
coverage of the Warrior athletic program. The press box at Coy Burnett Field was named in his honor as a tribute to his work and dedication.
Dick Johnson: Tehachapi's Original Sportwriter
Coy Burnett Press Box Named In His Honor
Posted October 26, 2008, by Jon Hammond, Tehachapi News "Pen In Hand" Columnist
There’s a bit of a tradition at the Tehachapi News that sportswriters often are Tehachapi High School alumni. I covered sports for five years and many other THS grads have written about local sports, including current sportswriter Tom Shea. The dean of all of us, though, is Richard “Dick” Johnson, 80.
Last week Dick was paid tribute at the THS Homecoming game when the press box at Coy Burnett Stadium was officially named the R. M. “Dick” Johnson Press Box. This is a fitting gesture for the man who basically started sports reporting in the Tehachapi Valley.
Dick was the son of the paper’s owner, Walter “Pop” Johnson, who bought the Tehachapi News from Grove Wilson in 1943 for the sum of $2,700. Dick, who was a student and athlete at THS himself, helped his Dad out by writing about THS sports, with a simple philosophy: “If we won the game, it went in the paper,” Dick explained. “If we didn’t, the story didn’t make it in.”
In those days, the only boys sports at THS were football and basketball — no baseball, tennis, golf, cross country, etc. For girls, the options were even more limited: just basketball.
There was no stadium in those days, and football games were played at Imhoff Field, which is the grassy area on the south side of the former Jacobsen Junior High on Snyder Street. Back in Dick’s school days, it was Tehachapi High. JJHS itself is no more, having being replaced by Jacobsen Middle School which moved into the vacated Tehachapi High when the new high school was completed several years ago.
The “stands” back in the 1940s was a small set of wooden bleachers, maybe six rows of seats tall and 20 yards long.
“There would only be 50 to 75 people at each of the games, which were always played on Saturday afternoon,” Dick recalls. “We had to play during daylight hours because there were no lights on the field. And there were no announcers, of course. We did have a couple of cheerleaders, though — I remember Betty Dowdy and Barbara Inlund.”
Just finding opposing teams to play against was a challenge back in those days, since there were so few high schools in Kern County. Local kids had to make long road trips for their games, and opponents included such far-flung rivals as Barstow and Victorville.
Fielding 11-man teams was also a challenge that some small schools simply couldn’t manage.
“One year in the course of the football season we played 6-man, 8-man and 11-man games,” Dick recalls. “Randsburg had a 6-man team, Trona had an 8-man squad and most of the others were 11 players — sometimes just barely.”
Dick, who played quarterback for THS his senior year in 1945, remembers taking a hard shot and being laid out. This was in the days of leather helmets with no face guards.
“I got dinged pretty good, but I had to get back up and keep playing because we didn’t have any other quarterbacks,” he says. And even if they had, it often wouldn’t have helped, because it would have meant simply moving a player from one position to another and there would still be a vacancy, for there were times when the entire team consisted of 11 players.
Another time the THS football squad played Bishop one day and Lone Pine the next, since the team was already up in the Owens Valley it was decided they’d play back-to-back games to save travel time and expense.
The THS team Dick played on is now mostly a ghost team, with deceased players that include Alfred Damian, John Barrera, Leonard Gutierrez, Ralph Tallman, Gilbert Cervantes, David Navarro, George Koutroulis, Jesse Peters and others. Living members besides Dick include Hugh Vasquez, Louie Damian, Bruce Hudson and Tony Anthony.
Dick still remembers the last game he played: On Thanksgiving Day, THS lost a tough game to Barstow. Dick threw a pass that was intercepted and Dick himself knocked the receiver out of bounds at the three-yard line. Barstow managed to score and the game ended 6-0, a loss for which Dick felt responsible. But that’s sports — just one play among thousands of others.
Dick decided Uncle Sam needed him so he joined the service and left for the military in February of 1946. He got out of the service in December of 1947 and for a short time lived in San Francisco, working for the Radio Corp. of America, which was a telegram service similar to Western Union. Living in the Bay Area was too expensive and stressful so Dick returned to Kern County in 1948 and attended Bakersfield College on the G. I. Bill.
“The G.I. Bill paid $140 a month, which was almost enough to pay for all my expenses,” Dick remembers. He also went to work as a sports stringer for the Bakersfield Californian under the direction of sports editor Walt Little.
“I learned a lot from him,” Dick notes. “The two of us were the entire sports department at the Californian, and we put out six pages a day.”
Dick covered mostly college sports but also high school, though there were only three high schools in Bakersfield in those days: BHS, West and East. Dick made an extra $50 a month putting together a weekly prep sports roundup for the Kern High School District.
Dick met a charming and pretty Delano girl in his psychology class and was smitten, and at the end of the school year in August of 1949 he married Joan Peacock, who is still his charming and pretty wife 59 years later.
The newly-married Dick worked in sales for Valley Office Supply for a year and hated it, so the new couple moved back up to Tehachapi and never left. Joan went to work in the office at the Monolith Portland Cement Company and Dick went back to the Tehachapi News, writing about sports, government news, running the printing press and everything else.
Eventually as photos became cheaper to print, the paper began including sports photos as well as stories. Taking photos from the sidelines of a football field in the heat of a game is not without risk — Dick once suffered torn ligaments in his leg when he was hit by THS player Roger Steelman during sweeping run in a Mojave game.
“Tehachapi didn’t have many super football teams until 1951, and then there were great teams in ‘52, ‘56, and so on,” Dick says. “Since then we’ve had lots of good teams and not many bad ones.”
Dick has covered innumerable THS games in all the different sports over the years and he was my main source of advice when I began covering THS sports in 1981. He was such a seasoned veteran that he knew all the different fields and gyms at different schools and could suggest good photo spots.
He and I agree that writing about sports is much more fun when you’re covering the hometown that you love. It may be harder to be objective, but people don’t expect too much objectivity when you’re writing in your hometown paper about your own alma mater. Go THS!
Thanks for your dedication in supporting Tehachapi kids for so many years, Dick. I look forward to photographing you sometime inside the press box that has been named for you.
Dick Johnson, far right, engages in some serious journalistic discussion
as the owner and operator of The Tehachapi News.
Humble Dedication: Johnson Honored
Posted October 20, 2008, by Tom Shea, Sports Writer, The Tehachapi News
To the causal observer, local icon R.M. “Dick” Johnson is a quiet, humble man that has attended countless local athletic events over a 60-year timeframe.
He does not embrace the spotlight. In fact, if he had it his way he would rather celebrate the accomplishment of others.
However, after many years of dedication, Mr. Johnson can no longer hide. His vital role in local sports interest, and his heart for local youth, can no longer be ignored.
Before the homecoming game against Shafter, the Tehachapi Unified School District, Board of Trustees and Warrior Booster Club honored Dick Johnson with a press box sign and a certificate of appreciation for many years of dedicated service.
Now and forever, Coy Burnett Field will be home to the R.M “Dick” Johnson Press Box.
“It was a joy for our family to be able to see this all happen,” said daughter-and-law Pam Johnson. “Everyone could see how supportive Dick has been over the years. He was moved. You could see that it was a great honor for him.”
Dick Johnson’s father, Walter, bought the Tehachapi News in 1943, starting a rich tradition of local coverage for the majority of the 20th century. Dick Johnson served as the Warrior quarterback his senior year of high school in 1945, and soon after graduating became a fixture of sports coverage for both Bakersfield and Tehachapi.
“Probably my greatest sports memory early on was watching Bakersfield College beat Dixie-Utah 91-0,” recalled Dick Johnson. “I remember Frank Gifford running wild in that game. He was something.”
Johnson still goes to as many games as possible to this day in football, baseball, softball and basketball.
“He’s an icon in our town,” said Tehachapi councilmen Ed Grimes. “He really deserves this recognition and it really was an honor to be apart of it at the game.”
Overall, there is no doubt that Dick Johnson cares for all Tehachapi kids, as our written history proves.
“He really follows our youth, he gets to know them,” added Pam Johnson. “He really wants them to do well and he follows their accomplishments in high school and beyond. He's a humble man that loves Tehachapi. He loves the kids.”
The SSL champion 1945-46 Warriors include, front row, left to right, coach John Goodell, Alfred Damian,
Hugh Vasquez, Jesse Peters, Fred Castro, George Koutroulis, Dick Johnson, Tony Anthony, and David Navarro (with ball).