Fred with Chanda Rubin, professional tennis player.
My heart is broken this week. Broken because a friend has lost his battle with cancer. A friend who had the biggest and kindest heart I have ever known. Fred Johnson came into my life about 25 years ago while I was working at USTA Missouri Valley. Fred is the kind of guy who smiled when he saw you, gave hugs freely and truly cared about what was happening in your life.
I had the privilege of working with Fred in the same office for several years when my daughter was little. It was fun to see my tiny little white girl trying to climb the tall black man so she could hug his neck. If she was around Fred, she had to have all his attention.
One of my favorite moments happened in the office. Fred was on the phone behind his desk and my 3-year-old daughter stood next to him, hands on her hips tapping her foot giving him a look that said “you better get off that phone and pay attention to me and it better happen now.” He did cut that call short and then threw her up over his shoulder making her laugh out loud.
Fred with Martina Navratilova
I left the USTA Missouri Valley and Fred worked there until the end. He and my husband were very close and they kept in constant contact over the years but over the last eight years, I saw Fred at events for my current job at the Kansas City Sports Commission. In true Fred fashion, he volunteers for the Sports Commission and for our program WIN for KC. He even served on the advisory board for WIN. We had lots of fun out at the Triathlon cheering on the participants.
I always knew that Fred was well known in Kansas City. Well known because of his giving to other people without asking for anything in return. Well known because he seemed to put other people before himself. Mention you know Fred Johnson to a random stranger and 9 times out of 10 they knew him and commented what a wonderful person he is.
My husband presenting Fred the USTA Missouri Valley President’s Award.
Right before Fred was diagnosed, he volunteered for the WIN for KC Camp WIN. A four-day sports camp we hold for girls ages 6-12. Fred was out there teaching all these little girls tennis even though he felt horrible. I know he enjoyed volunteering for Camp WIN. He was there every June for many years. Seeing him interact with kids, you could tell, that was one of his favorite places to be.
Now he is gone and it’s so hard to wrap my mind around never seeing his smile, never receiving one of his bear hugs, never laughing with him. I’m a better person knowing Fred and he will always own a little piece of my heart.
Until next time…enjoy the view from your passenger seat
Here are a few stories of how Fred affected people’s lives, making an impact. These stories are from his Facebook Profile:
Gianni Amber North: I met the man I affectionately called Poppa Fred when I was 6 years old. My mother took me to Parade Park to take tennis lessons. He and the equally amazing Prentice Blackmon taught a bunch of “hood kids” how to hit forehands and backhands. They made us believe we could be tennis players. In the winter, he would kick the basketball players out of Greg Center and pull a tennis net across the basketball courts. Myself, Mike Johnson, and about 15 other kids would put all of our boots in a pile, throw our tennis shoes on and play tennis. Rain, shine, sleet, snow, there was never an excuse not to play. They are some of the best childhood memories I have. Poppa Fred told me I was talented and that I should keep playing. And it was in large part because of his encouragement and support that I was able to develop my talent and get a tennis scholarship.
He sent me court shoes, racquets, paid for tournament fees. He was an ear to vent to when I felt like I wasn’t good enough. When my mother and I moved to California and he could no longer be there for me in the flesh, he even made sure I had another angel in Ronita Elder.
They don’t make ‘em like Fred anymore- His laugh, his spirit, his truth, his integrity, his love, his kindness. He was in every sense of the word the embodiment of what a good man is. He was a fighter and he went out like a champ. Good or bad everyone leaves a legacy. Poppa Fred’s is immeasurable, indelible, and all heart.
Margaret R. Acker: My first memory of Fred was back in 1957. We meet in our brand new Kindergarten classroom. We were all quiet, scared and not knowing anyone. He walked over to me (twice my size – the guy that he was) and said “will you be my friend and can I sit next to you.” He could hardly fit in those tiny chairs, but he pulled the biggest one over next to me and never left my side that first week. I will always cherish this special friend. We grew up together and shared many good times. He was such a fighter and always with that dynamic smile.
Jeff Sikes and Fred.
Jeff Sikes: Fred took me under his wing when I started working for USTA Missouri Valley in 2005. The man always took care of me, always looked out for me, and always was a helping hand. In this digital age of everyone doing things through the computer or an e-mail, he did it old school, you know by actually talking to people and going to them. I’ll be honest – his typing skills and computer skills sucked, but the guy made more tennis magic happen than anyone I’ve ever seen. Generations of kids started playing and will continue to play tennis because of his unique personal skills and effort. He’s the perfect example of the multiplying effect in action: He was a singular man turning the love of tennis into thousands feeling the same way.
Yeah, Fred and I took a few-too-long-of-lunch-breaks sometimes together, but we were always getting good BBQ or soul food somewhere in Kansas City, or venturing out to places that would leave lasting impacts on me, like the Negro League Baseball Hall of Fame in downtown KC, or the Brown vs. Board of Education national historic site in Topeka. Sometimes it was just doing fun stuff like sneaking in a couple of seconds of shooting hoops together at an underprivileged school before we’d teach them tennis.
It was a common occurrence him showing me something I’d never seen before, or, putting me in touch with people doing awe-inspiring things for this sport. He knew them all. He knew everyone. Everyone knew him. Fred was the ultimate connector of people, the strongest link I’ve known in this great big tennis chain. This sport of tennis has immediately become a less cool place because of the loss of Fred Johnson. We all need to be links like he was, if only to serve the memory of all the effort he put in.
My first week on the job at USTA Mo Valley, Fred Johnson and I went to a maximum security prison in Fort Madison, Iowa together to teach tennis to inmates – still one of the best stories I have. Every day I was around him was a fun one, an experience, a memory to not be forgotten.
Yasmine Osborn: Thanks for ALWAYS looking out for me, as a junior tennis player, and throughout my USTA career. I promise to keep you alive in my heart and by continuing your legacy of bringing tennis to all!
Linda Mann: Today, I lost a special friend. More like a big brother, Fred Johnson has been a part of my life for more than 20 years now. As a new member of the tennis community and family, Fred embraced me like a big brother, educated me, guided me, and kept me laughing throughout all of the work we did to promote tennis in the community. His warm and loving spirit, love for his family, and brotherly demeanor made him special to me and all of us who were part of the Diversity & Inclusion community in the tennis world.