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Johnson played key role in Monongahela sports

| Thursday, May 28, 2009

His given name was Harry Abrams Johnson, but he was best known as just Harry Johnson. And he wrote a legacy of success as an athlete and coach in Uniontown, North Carolina and Monongahela.

A native of West Elizabeth, Johnson was born Dec. 20, 1908, a son of the late Henry Samuel and Rita Abrams Johnson. The family later resided in Uniontown, where Harry played football, basketball and baseball before graduating in 1926. His athletic and academic skills earned him a scholarship to High Point College in High Point, N.C., where he was captain of the football team and also played basketball and baseball.

"A lot of people have told me dad was an excellent athlete," Bob Johnson, of Austintown, Ohio, said of his father. "His college yearbook also showed that he was a standout in three sports."

After receiving his bachelor's degree in education from High Point in 1932, Johnson moved to Monongahela, where he became an English teacher at Central Junior School at Fourth and Chess streets. He advanced his education and received a double master's degree in education from the University of Pittsburgh in 1934. He later taught health and physical education.

"Dad loved his first teaching job," Bob Johnson said. "He always had a lot of stories about being there and talked a lot about the principal, Herbert Cooley, who was a real disciplinarian."

From the junior high school, Johnson transferred to what was called the "Chicken Coop" - a building located behind Monongahela High School (now Monongahela Elementary Center). The buildings were connected by a covered walkway.

"It was really a one-room building with a potbelly stove," Bob Johnson recalled.

In addition to teaching and coaching, Harry Johnson also played for the renowned independent basketball team sponsored by Monongahela businessman and entrepreneur Frank Pizza. His teammates on what is considered one of the best clubs of its kind in Mon Valley history were a guy from Donora named Stan Musial, the Conte brothers, Jim Norton, Ed Leonard and Cass Dale.

"My father and Stan became good friends," Bob Johnson said. "Every time Stan came to town with the (St. Louis) Cardinals or to visit his family, he made a point of getting in touch with dad. I remember one time he visited us and entertained by playing his harmonica. He was darn good on that thing."

Harry's son said his father began coaching junior varsity basketball in the 1930s. Newspaper accounts of Harry's coaching career indicate that he became varsity basketball mentor at Monongahela High School in 1942. He served in that capacity until August 1950, when he requested to be moved to the junior high coaching position. The change in coaching assignments evolved from the resignation of John Conte as junior high mentor, - a position he had held since returning from military service in 1945.

Johnson was succeeded as varsity basketball coach by Bill Parkinson, the former Monessen High School and Washington & Jefferson College basketball and baseball star.

A story in The Monessen Daily Independent reported that Johnson requested the junior high post because he wanted to devote more time to Monongahela's winter recreation program.

"Those were great days for me," Bob Johnson, who became one of Monongahela High's all-time standouts, recalled of his father's stint as varsity basketball coach. "I lived in the gym and got to sit on the bench at the home games."

The latter luxury led to a memorable experience in Bob's life.

"One of the varsity players handed me a whistle while I was sitting on the bench and told me to blow it," he said laughingly. "Hey, I was just a kid and didn't know any better. I blew the whistle and the action on the floor came to a screeching halt. The referees, players, coaches and fans were all looking at me. Dad wasn't very happy about what happened and I really got it at home that night."

Harry Johnson also was an assistant football coach for several years at Monongahela High before stepping aside when his twin sons, Bob and Bill, moved up to the varsity in 1957.

He also was credited with starting the first youth basketball program at the armory on Second Street and served as director of summer recreation programs at the Westminster, Lincoln and Hillcrest playgrounds. He held the recreation duties for 14 years.

"We couldn't wait for the playgrounds to open in the summer and we were sad when they closed just before school started,' Bob Johnson recalled. "I remember some of the great people who ran the programs were Hazen Neil, Tom Barbero, Mrs. Kathryn Doran Youngst and Elmo Natali."

Other close friends included Harry Sickels, Harry "Yi" McCurdy, Bill Parkinson, Clair Brown, Bap Manzini and Floyd France.

"The were great men who were dedicated to the people of Monongahela and the Mon Valley," Bob Johnson said.

Harry Johnson helped head coach Cliff Carlson and his assistant Lou Resovich organize the first basketball team at Carroll Junior High School in 1955. Bob and Bill Johnson were on that team.

"Dad just enjoyed being involved with sports," Bob said. "Mr. Carlson and Mr. Resovich were excellent coaches and it was great playing for them."

Bob also said his father "helped many young people" get into college with the help of his uncle, Bob Davis, a Monongahela High and Penn State graduate who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1946 to 1952. Among them were Fred Cox, a star at MHS and Pitt whose NFL career with the Minnesota Vikings spanned 14 years.

"Dad drove Fred home after basketball practice and also took him to basketball games at the old Pitt Field House when Pitt was recruiting him for football," Bob recalled.

Harry retired in 1975 after 41 years as a teacher.

He and his wife, the former Sarah Davis Johnson, were married 44 years before her death at age 64 on Nov. 7, 1980.

Mrs. Johnson also was a teacher with 27 years of service in the Monongahela and West Jefferson Hills school districts. She also was well known as the talented and inspiring organist at First Presbyterian Church of Monongahela for 27 years.

In addition to their sons Bob and Bill, who lives in Canfield, Ohio, the Johnsons were the parents of a daughter, Carol Johnson Milesky, of Finleyville.

Harry Johnson was living with his son Bob at the time of his death on Dec. 12, 1995, in Western Reserve Care System in Youngstown, Ohio. He was 86.

(If you have memories to share or a story idea, contact Ron Paglia at or c/o The Valley Independent, Eastgate 19, Monessen, PA 15062.)

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