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A golden legend passes away

Grant Johnson poses with his University of Minnesota men’s basketball memorbelia from the 1937 Big 10 championship season. SUBMITTED PHOTO

A Golden Legend passed away Tuesday, July 1, in Maitland, Fla.

Grant “Spike” Johnson lived a full and productive 98 years, as he made his imprints in several Minnesota communities, as well as in University of Minnesota men’s basketball lore.

Johnson first made a name for himself on the Gopher hardwood, after he was a main contributor in the U of M’s Big 10 championship team in 1937, along with John Kundla, who also coached the famed Minneapolis Lakers to five NBA titles.

For his accomplishments as a Gopher cager, Johnson was inducted into the “M” Club Hall of Fame in 2008.

Johnson became the third player off that historical team to be named to the “M” Club Hall of Fame, along with Kundla, who was a part of the Class of 1995.

“It’s just overwhelming,” Johnson said of the Hall of Fame honor in an article, published in the Sept. 6, 2008, Detroit Lakes Tribune. “There have been so many other great athletes who have come out of the University of Minnesota who are more deserving, so it’s such an honor.”

Eventually, Johnson’s path came to Detroit Lakes, where he would make an impact on the community like no other.

After taking the superintendent job at the Detroit Lakes School District in 1951, Johnson was an integral factor of spearheading the construction of Rossman Elementary School, the current high school and the Minnesota State Community and Technical College (M-State) in DL.

As is proven today, passing referendum bonds for construction of new educational facilities by the public is a difficult and laborious task.

Johnson was able to pass not one, but three, bond issues by the public with glowing results. It wasn’t easy, but from the actions taken over 50 years ago, today’s educational system in DL is that much better and reaping the benefits of Johnson’s work.

He also saw another grand opportunity of consolidating the 22 rural schools with the school district, thus broadening the tax base.

But that was easier said than done, since in 1958, rural schools were a staple in the countryside and people were set in their ways not to lose them.

“I went out for 22 nights to each rural district until 9 to 2 a.m., explaining why it was bet-ter to school their children in town,” Johnson said. “Of course, there was some reluctance, but there were many advantages of closing the rural schools.”

One carrot Johnson offered to the rural residents was giving the schoolhouse to them as a recreational facility or whatever they wanted to use it as.

But the biggest reason the bond issue passed by an 84-percent margin was the fact all but one district actually had their taxes lowered, not raised, with the construction of the new high school.

“The only district which had its taxes increased was the one on Big Detroit and that was because there were a lot of students living out there,” Johnson said. “The majority of the rural citizens voted for the bond. At first, I didn’t even realize that taxes would go down.

“For us to make a move for a new high school, we needed the support from the rural districts.”

Johnson had a direct hand in planning the new high school, along with the two architects.

Included in the plans were a new gym, swim-ming pool, all the spacious classrooms and a state of the art library.

The total cost for the entire project: $1.3 million.

The swimming pool was the first of its kind in a high school north of St. Cloud, while the library was large and one of the best of its time in the northwest region.

Swimming became a regular exercise later in life for Johnson, especially during his summer trips to DL, where he would stay for a couple of months.

Every morning, Johnson swam laps at the Detroit Lakes Community and Cultural Center. His love for swimming lasted well into his 90’s, with Florida being his home. 

He was also inducted into two more Halls of Fame, including the Minnesota State High School League for administration and athletics and the Lake County/Two Harbors for basketball.

Preceding Johnson in death was his wife, Kay. Grant leaves five children:  Mark and Kathie (Johnson) Schaffler, Maitland, Fla., Jeff and Ardis (Rusten) Johnson, Detroit Lakes, Mark and Jennifer (Johnson) Marcouiller, Waukee, Iowa; Marcus and Candyce (Johnson) Coons, Jenson Beach, Fla.; and Robbin Kelly Johnson, Maitland, Fla.

Brian Wierima
Detroit Lakes Newspapers Sports Editor for the last 15 years. St. Cloud State University graduate, who hails from Deer Creek, MN.