Herman Johnson, fondly known as “Coach Herman” in West Baltimore and beyond, will never leave Bentalou Recreation Center.
His mark will always remain — a street-signing ceremony by Baltimore City in 2019 proclaiming the corner of North Bentalou and West Saratoga streets as Herman Johnson Way will help provide a constant reminder of the care and passion he brought as a youth basketball coach and mentor to the community since the center opened 1970.
But in a much greater sense, Mr. Johnson, who died of a heart attack Thursday at the University of Maryland Medical Center Midtown Campus after a nine-month struggle with cancer, will live on with the generations of youths to whom he taught basketball and life in general.
Mr. Johnson, who never married but treated the thousands of youths he worked with as his own, was 76.
Paul Franklin, a Forest Park graduate and president of the Bentalou Recreation Council who first came to the center as a youth in 1974, confirmed Coach Johnson’s death.
“His life was a testament to young people and the building of his community. And the reason I don’t limit it to just saying basketball players, in the last 24 hours, I received almost 135 calls from people I don’t know,” said Mr. Franklin, a 54-year-old Woodlawn resident. “I’ve had someone call me and tell me Coach Herman was the person who taught them how to drive and get their driver’s license. I had one person tell me Coach Herman first taught them how to read when they were already grown and illiterate. Once they learned to read, he encouraged them to get their GED and they got it and went on to have a successful life.”
From 1970 until he retired in 2007, his five-day work weeks were gladly turned into seven-day work weeks with regular spaghetti dinners coming out of his pocket. He continued as a volunteer until he became ill.
“I’m going to say this right off, you can’t replace a guy like that,” said Jimmy Conyers, a longtime assistant coach and close friend.
“We just got to take this loss. Anybody that’s been around him — especially a guy like me who has been around him for 30-plus years — they get a better of understanding of what it is to be a good human being. When God puts you here, he puts you here for a reason and he has a job for you to do. And that’s what he put Coach Herman here to do — to help people and be a part of their life.”
A towering kind man who stood 6 feet 5 inches, Mr. Johnson was humbled when he first learned the street corner he walked to and from for so many days would be named for him.
Leading up to the ceremony in 2019, he said: “It’s a great honor for people to think enough of you to name a street after you. But one of the things people don’t realize is Bentalou Rec Center has a long reputation. A lot of people have come through that little gym, and I had a lot of help. A lot of help. You can’t build a program like that without volunteers, parents and cooperation from everybody.”
It all started with his tireless work.
Former Maryland basketball standout Rudy Archer was playing football behind the center as a youth when he popped into the gym to get a drink of water. Coach Johnson asked him if he wanted to play basketball, and the rest is history.
“Ever since then I learned to love the game of basketball and under his tutelage, he explained to me what he expected out of me being his point guard. I was like an extension of him,” said Mr. Archer, 54, who resides in North Carolina. “He was amazing. We rejoice because we trust God. We’ll think about the precious moments we had with him. He saved so many lives.”
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Two weeks ago, Mr. Conyers said, Mr. Johnson was still thinking about the kids.
He gave Mr. Conyers some important words he wanted relayed to the current group of youths at Bentalou. When Mr. Conyers told him the message would be better received coming from him, Mr. Johnson asked for his Bentalou shirt and his whistle, and a video was made.
“This wasn’t a job to him. His paycheck was not a part of this. This is what he do,” Mr. Conyers said. “Herman wasn’t the only one — there were other coaches — and these guys did it from their heart. It’s what he loved doing. With Coach Herman, the kids came first.”
When Damien Ross, a 46-year-old Delaware resident who started going to Bentalou when he was 3 years old, posted on Facebook about Coach Johnson’s death, there was an immediate outpouring of love that hasn’t stopped.
“You can’t even imagine how many kids he reached because he had such an impact on your life that everybody he coached ended up teaching their kids the lessons they learned from him in the gym. So it just grew and grew and grew,” said Mr. Ross, who is a social worker for the state of Delaware in New Castle County and also works in real estate. “So the impact would probably be in the thousands of people. And for him, that wasn’t his goal. His goal was just to live the right way and do things the right way with honor.”