Hagerstown's Memorial Recreation Center rededicated to man who served as father figure to many
The late Robert W. Johnson's children, from left, Pam (Johnson) Sonttag, Stephen L. Johnson Sr, and Roderick Johnson, along with their mother Tish Johnson, right, unveiled the new Robert W. Johnson Community Center Inc. sign Saturday at 109 W. North Ave. in Hagerstown. (By Joe Crocetta / Staff Photographer / June 15, 2013)
They were his friends, neighbors, family and former students, all joining Saturday for the rededication of Hagerstown’s Memorial Recreation Center, which now bears the name of Robert W. Johnson Community Center.
Johnson, who died June 17, 2009, is memorialized for his roles as an educator, coach and Tuskegee airman.
It was fitting that the rededication, which drew about 150 people, fell on the eve of Father’s Day, one of the ceremony’s speakers said.
“Because Bob Johnson was not only a devoted husband, father and grandfather, he was a father figure to so many,” said Baltimore City Circuit Judge David Young, who was Johnson’s former student and “biggest reclamation project.”
In 1985, when he was sworn in, Johnson and his wife, Patricia “Tish” Johnson, were by Young’s side.
“He whispered to me, ‘When I look at you, I know God is real,’” Young said, setting off a round of laughter. “I would have predicted many things, but a judge, never.”
It was at Memorial Recreation Center, which originally served as the all-black North Street School where Johnson taught science and coached basketball, that Young said he learned to swim and read.
Johnson also taught at Hagerstown High School, his wife has said, then at North Hagerstown High School, where he was the first black teacher and coach when Washington County schools integrated in 1956.
City and county officials, in addition to a representative of U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, were in attendance at the ceremony, where the Ebenezer A.M.E. Choir that Johnson once directed crooned to the crowd.
“I wondered when I was asked to speak, was I speaking as a city councilman, was I speaking as a former coach, was I going to speak as an official, what was my capacity?” city Councilman Lewis C. Metzner said.
“And I made a decision, I’m speaking as member of the Class of 1970 of North Hagerstown High School,” he said to an eruption of applause.
Metzner said he was a part of the first team that Johnson coached as an integrated team at an integrated school, but the fact that Johnson was “breaking barriers” didn’t dawn on the group of teenagers at the time.
“There wasn’t a player on the football team that knew Coach Johnson was something special from that perspective, none of us knew that he was a Tuskegee airman, none of us knew any of these things,” Metzner said. “But I’ll tell you what we did know, we knew we were in the midst of someone special, we knew that without knowing these other things.”
Johnson retired as assistant principal at Hagerstown’s E. Russell Hicks Middle School in 1983. Five years later, he became the first black person inducted into the Washington County Sports Hall of Fame.
Tish Johnson, who was in attendance along with her children and grandchildren, said for as dedicated to the community as he was, her husband never neglected his family, which includes two sons and two daughters.
“I was blessed,” she said. “Sometimes, I would say to myself, ‘God must have sent this man here to Hagerstown just to be my husband.’”
The rededication follows the decision of center officials to incorporate the word “community” in the title, Executive Director Karen Cook said.
Public input on a new name was sought over a 60-day period, and a petition signed by more than 300 people calling for the facility to be named for Johnson sealed the deal, Cook said.
Built in 1888, after the center served as the North Street School, it became the YMCA, for use by the black community, in 1947.
In 1968, the building became Memorial Recreation Center.
Following the ceremony, the center’s new sign baring Johnson’s name was unveiled.
“I hope he’s looking down to see all this,” Tish Johnson said.