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Community leader Don Johnson dies

Profile image for By Brett Vito
By Brett Vito

Don Johnson, a collegiate basketball All-American who rose to prominence in Denton as a businessman and community leader, died on Monday after a long battle with cancer. Johnson was 83.

The Minco, Okla., native played for what was then Oklahoma A&M University under legendary coach Henry Iba. Johnson helped lead Iba’s team to the 1951 Final Four as a junior while averaging a team-high 12.1 points a game.

A year later, Johnson earned All-American honors from the Helms Foundation after averaging 14 points a game during his senior year.

Johnson was inducted into the Oklahoma State University Athletics Hall of Fame in 2011.

Johnson was drafted by the Boston Celtics, but passed on an opportunity to play in the NBA to play for the Phillips 66ers. He later settled in the Denton area following his basketball career and quickly became a well-known businessman and philanthropist.

He is survived by Lois Chappel Johnson, his wife of 53 years; daughter Jacquie Johnson-Bechtel and husband, Gary Bechtel; son, Scott Johnson; daughter-in-law Joanie Stout-Johnson; and three grandchildren: Alison Rigsby, Jessy Stout and Joshua Johnson.

“Don was one of those kind of guys who never met a stranger and would help anyone,” said Ricky Perritt, a local attorney and longtime friend. “There is no telling how many people he helped financially when they needed it. If anyone he knew was in a bind financially, he was the first one to help.”

Johnson and his family gave the lead donation that helped renovate the men’s and women’s basketball locker rooms at Gallagher-Iba Arena.

Johnson’s generosity went well beyond Oklahoma State. He was known among his friends as a giving man who would donate to charities and often help people in ways few realized.

He was a member of the Denton Elks Lodge and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

“Don contributed to just about every charitable cause there was in Denton,” friend Jerry Mohelnitzky said.

Ken Bahnsen, a former coach at what is now the University of North Texas and a member of the school’s Hall of Fame, said Johnson was always there to lend support to the school’s athletic programs.

Johnson was among a group of local businessmen who would meet on a regular basis to run, often at Fouts Field. The group would sometimes include former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, who was then a professor at North Texas in the 1970s.

“He was tough and never gave up,” Carroll Goen, a member of the group, said of Johnson. “He was always at the head of the pack. He was the toughest man I ever ran with.”

Goen worked in construction and would often see Johnson pull up in his truck with an ice chest full of cold drinks. The two would often sit down and talk while Goen took a break on hot summer days.

“I would look for his truck every day,” Goen said.

It wasn’t often that Johnson’s basketball career would come up.

“Don never bragged about his time at Oklahoma State,” Perritt said. “You had to pull it out of him.”

Johnson’s friends say he was much more interested in talking about what was going on in the community and helping others, traits they remembered this week as news of his death spread.

“He was a beloved guy around town,” said Layne Brewer, a local banker and friend. “If you have been in Denton for a long time, you knew Don Johnson. He was a pillar of the community.”

Services for Johnson will be at 3 p.m. Saturday at St. David’s Episcopal Church, 623 Ector St.

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.