Visitation services for legendary LeMoyne-Owen College basketball coach Jerry C. Johnson are set for Friday (Jan. 29) at Mt. Vernon Baptist Church-Westwood, 620 Parkrose Rd. He was 102 years old when he died on Sunday morning.
The gathering visitation, which is open to the public, will be from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Masking and social distancing safety protocols for COVID-19 will be strictly enforced. A private service will be arranged for family and close friends.
The athletic director and head coach of the men’s basketball team at LeMoyne-Owen College for 46 years (1959-2005), Mr. Johnson retired with one of the winningest records in college sports history.
During his career, Mr. Johnson and his LOC players racked 821 wins. In 1975, he became the first African-American coach to win the NCAA Division III Championship, making LOC the first HBCU to hold the honor. LOC remains the only men’s college basketball team in Memphis and the state of Tennessee to win an NCAA title.
Coach Johnson died peacefully in his sleep at his home. He was found by his caregiver about 4:30 a.m., according to a family friend.
“I can remember starting to watch my dad coach basketball back when I was four or five years old,” said his son, Dr. Jerry C. Johnson Jr., a physician based in Philadelphia. “We were in Hickory, North Carolina, where he taught, and I would sit and just watch him working with the students. He also coached girls’ basketball as well.”
Mr. Johnson was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma on June 20, 1918 to Henry and Rachael McIntosh Johnson. The youngest of three, Mr. Johnson’s two sisters, Corrine and Alberta, preceded him in death.
Throughout his life, Mr. Johnson was known to say that “God was with him.” Both of his parents died while he was in his teens. His intelligence, athletic prowess and courage opened doors as he pursued a college education.
Mr. Johnson spent his freshman and sophomore years at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, where he played basketball and football, capturing All-American honors in football.
After his sophomore year, Mr. Johnson hitchhiked to Fayetteville State University in Fayetteville, North Carolina, impressing the administration and coaching staff by walking right up and introducing himself. Johnson enrolled at Fayetteville State and excelled again as an All-American in football.
Mr. Johnson earned a bachelor’s degree at the college. Along the way, he met a campus beauty named Vaster Marrow, who became his wife of 53 years. She preceded him in death.
His first job was as a teacher and coach at Ridgeview High School in Hickory, North Carolina.
“At Hickory, he taught girls basketball, boys basketball and marbles,” said Dr. Johnson. “I remember Hickory being just a little town, and kids had to walk to school. So, they couldn’t be on time because they had so far to walk. I remember students coming to live in our house so they could be on time for school.”
From 1947-51, the Hickory boys basketball team won four consecutive state championships. Mr. Johnson’s girls basketball and marble teams also were known for their competitiveness.
“Shooting marbles competitively was a popular sport at that time,” said Wandra Haywood, Johnson’s daughter. “Initially, when I was very young, I didn’t realize that my father was so well known and impacting so many children because he had a family life outside of his professional life. But, I can remember that there would be these children coming to stay with us.”
A rising star, Mr. Johnson seized upon an opportunity in Memphis at the city’s only HBCU (historically Black colleges and universities).
“My dad came to LeMoyne-Owen in 1958, and we moved here, the family, in 1959,” said Dr. Johnson. “I would come and watch him coach every evening from about 3-5 in the afternoon, and on Saturday mornings, too. I was at Walker Elementary and Porter Jr. High. I can remember (former Mayor Dr.) Willie (W.) Herenton’s basketball career at LeMoyne-Owen.”
Haywood recalled summers with her father as he taught swim classes at the college.
“My job was to teach the younger kids how to swim,” she said. “All of us children were excellent swimmers.”
In addition to retiring (2005) with 800-plus wins by his men’s basketball teams, Coach Johnson cherished his role as a teacher of health and physical education, Dr. Johnson said.
His mentorship and care greatly aided numerous students, whose later achievements included distinction as teachers, principals, coaches on multiple levels, a mayor, city council member and other successful endeavors. Eight of his players made to the NBA.
A longtime member of Mt. Vernon Baptist Church-Westwood, Mr. Johnson also held status as a 33rd degree Mason and Shriner.
Coach Johnson leaves his daughter, Wandra (Samuel) Haywood of Gainesville, Florida; his son, Dr. Jerry C. (Linda) Johnson Jr., of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. His youngest son, Oliver Johnson, preceded him in death two years ago.
In lieu of flowers, the family is asking that donations be made to the JCJ Foundation, which funds scholarship endowments to deserving, needy students. More information is available at: 901-435-1000.
R.S. Lewis Funeral Home has charge.