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John Johnson decided to move his family closer to his job at Western Electric in 1943 because he was growing weary of the 8½-mile daily streetcar commute from Western and Diversey to Cicero.
The Johnsons settled in Berwyn on the 3300 block of Harvey Avenue. All of four of John and Ida Johnson’s sons attended Lavergne School in Berwyn, then Morton High School and Morton College.
The Johnson boys, now in their 80s, enjoyed a mini-Morton College reunion of sorts last October at their sister’s home in Ontario, Canada. Former athletic director Rich Fullriede provided baseball caps for the four Johnson boys, all of whom participated in athletics at Morton College between 1947 and 1957.
Seated from left in the attached photo are Gordon, Hagard, Wally and Harold Johnson.
“When we moved to Berwyn, my brother, Hagard, was all set to go to Lane Tech,” recalled Wally Johnson, who will turn 82 in July. “He was heartbroken at first. We all went to Morton High School, which was a great school in itself.
“We basically went to Morton College for financial reasons. But Morton College was a highly-ranked school. Your credits were accepted anywhere. MJC was a very tough school.”
At Morton College, all four of the Johnsons enjoyed various levels of success at the team or individual levels. More importantly, they were successful after Morton College, too.
Hagard, who lives in Lincolnwood and will be 87 in August, was a State Farm insurance agent. Gordon, 83, who hails in Port Huron, Michigan, was a geologist educated at the Missouri School of Mines. Wally, a Stickney resident, taught in the Morton High School District for 34 years before retiring in 1994 and worked two Winter Olympics – 1980 Lake Placid and 2002 Salt Lake City – as a cross-country ski judge. Harold, 80, of Minnetonka, Minnesota, was a regional manager for the Dole Food Company.
The Johnson boys were all first-generation Americans. Their parents came from Sweden and Americanized their name from Johansen to Johnson. John, the father, enlisted in the U.S. Army to get citizenship, according to Wally.
“We grew up in the Great Depression,” Wally remembered. “There were tough times, but we didn’t know that as kids. I don’t know how my parents managed.”
They were too young to serve in World War II, but couldn’t escape the Korean War as Gordon was in the Army and Hagard, the Air Force.
Amazingly, there was only one year at Morton College when multiple Johnson brothers played together. That came in 1952-53 when Gordon and Wally teamed up to do great things on the men’s basketball team.
The Johnson run included:
While Hagard was a reserve during both of his two seasons, he was part of the Morton College team that qualified for the first National Junior College Athletic Association men’s basketball tournament in 1948. It took another 57 years for a Morton College team to return.
Joe Ondrus, coach of that 1947-48 team, is best remembered as the beloved superintendent at Morton High School. He also was a Big Ten wrestling champion at the University of Illinois and an intelligence officer in the U.S. Army during World War II.
Morton College finished ranked 10th nationally. The Panthers were 20-5 overall and 17-3 in winning the Northern Illinois Junior College championship.
While Morton College was just 10-10 in Hagard’s second season, he was part of another record-setting moment when the Panthers scored a school-record points in a single game during a 146-67 dismantling of Herzl (now Malcolm X). And, Morton College did it without a three-point line, which wasn’t introduced to the college level until the 1986-87 season.
Gordon and Wally provided Morton College’s basketball team with a dynamic one-two scoring punch during the 1952-53 season. Gordon was Morton College’s leading scorer with 350 points, followed Wally’s 238.
Gordon had 10 20-point games, an amazing feat considering Morton College played only 17 times. He had 32 points in a 95-88 win over La Grange (now the College of DuPage). The Johnson brothers combined for 63 points in a 94-88 victory over La Salle-Peru (now Illinois Valley) with Gordon going off for 34 and Wally adding 29.
Wright College’s newspaper placed Gordon to its all Big Six Team that season.
With Gordon getting an “Uncle Sam scholarship” to go serve in Korea, Wally was the big gun on Bill Hapac’s 15-4 team during the 1953-54 campaign. Wally scored a team-high 407 points, including a career-high 41 in a 108-98 win over Thornton (now South Suburban).
Hapac, namesake of the gymnasium at Morton East High School, was an All-American basketball player at the University of Illinois. He once held the Big Ten single-game scoring record and signed professional contracts to play basketball and baseball.
Harold followed on the baseball team from 1955 to 1957. He was part of Morton College’s 1956 team that shared the NIJC crown with Wilson (now Kennedy-King).
Wally wound up with an athletic scholarship, but it didn’t come through Morton College. Wally enlisted in the Army and was playing on its regiment team. Ron Wimpy of Centralia happened to be walking through the gym one day and saw Johnson play. Wimpy wrote to his coach at East Texas Baptist College (now University) and recommended Johnson.
When Johnson returned to Berwyn, there was a letter from the coach with a scholarship offer. Wally took it and eventually was named to the university’s athletic hall of fame in 2001.
“Morton College was a great experience for all of us,” Wally noted.