Written by Phillip Johnson, fall 2013

 

Gerald Johnson For most of his life, my father, Gerry Johnson, dreamed to be in front of the camera – or behind the microphone – broadcasting sporting events. The son of an  accomplished athlete and coach, Gerry excelled in football, basketball and track at University High School in Urbana and was a member of the varsity track  team at the University of Illinois from 1948-1951. He built a long, successful career in sales with WCIA-TV, yet his dream of being a sports broadcaster went  unfulfilled.

 This summer, after my father lost his battle with cancer, I discovered in his personal papers additional details about his interest in broadcasting.

 A job application letter to the Director of WCIA – dated June 22, 1953 – outlined a 24-year-old's professional aspirations. Having graduated from the U of I in  June 1951 with a degree in Physical Education, Gerry wrote that his goal had been to follow in his father’s footsteps and enter the coaching profession. Duty  called, however, and he found himself on active duty with the United States Air Force Reserve at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. While there, his interactions with several  radio and television sports broadcasters sparked his interest in their profession.

A letter, dated March 25, 1952, shed light on these interactions. The advertising manager of The American Tobacco Company wrote to the Brigadier General in charge of the base to thank Gerry and others for facilitating the national television broadcast of a popular boxing program. As luck would have it, a breakdown in transmission lines prevented much of the regular national viewing audience from seeing the program.

Upon his release from active duty in April 1953, Gerry returned to Champaign and applied for a position as a sports announcer at WDWS radio station. With no such positions available, he took a job in sales to gain experience in radio. Wanting to transition from radio to television, he closed his application letter to WCIA saying, "I would like to stay in selling with an opportunity of doing additional work in TV sports broadcasting if at all possible."

While this opportunity never materialized, Gerry did get involved with WCIA's broadcasts of Illinois men's basketball games. For many years, he traveled with the team, serving up statistics to the color and play-by-play announcers. I was fortunate to accompany him on a few of these trips, rubbing elbows with some of my childhood idols.

Gerry's unfulfilled dreams of being a sports broadcaster didn't prevent him from having a long, rewarding life, professionally and personally. Still, I'm sure he wondered what his life might have been like had he been able to break into broadcasting.

By helping students seeking a career in broadcast journalism to earn their degree or to obtain an internship, my hope is that The Gerald P. Johnson Endowment Fund will help some of them to realize their own professional dreams.


If you have questions or would like to discuss donation options, please contact:

  • Marlah Bonner McDuffie
    Associate Dean for Advancement
    College of Media
    217-244-5466
    marlahb@illinois.edu