At 78, Dick Johnson is a formidable pickleball champion. His service on and off the court was noted with a special award from the National Senior Olympic Games. (Courtesy photo)
Dick Johnson aced all the sports he tried as a boy — everything from tennis to baseball.
“He was trying to keep up with the older kids; he was skinny,” Lawana, Dick’s wife, said. At 78, Dick is still an athlete, but the sports he plays are different these days. Now, he’s a formidable, winning pickleball champion.
Dick has been on a winning streak since childhood. He was born in Twin Falls and raised in Boise, where his family lived in a home in the North End. “It was quite different back then than it is now,” he said.
When Dick attended Boise High School, it was the only public high school in town. After graduation, Dick attended Boise Junior College in 1958 and was president of the freshman class, as well as president of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society.
He made a run for student body president at BJC but tied with his opponent. In a run-off, Dick lost by less than a handful of votes. “It was a real downer — it was the first time I ever lost,” he said.
The ‘downer’ was temporary. When Dick was 20, he was approached by his church leader about missionary work. But entering the mission field required giving up a great scholarship to the University of Colorado. Nonetheless, Dick chose mission work.
“A feeling came over me when I decided to go,” he said.
It was a strong spiritual feeling, a feeling that he was making the right choice. In fact, reflecting back, he sees it as one of the greatest choices he ever made.
“It was one of the best decisions of my life — to help people learn about Jesus Christ and the Gospel, and for me to serve others,” he said.
His was a domestic mission field in the U.S. and included the states of West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Upon completion of that commitment, he went on to higher education, majoring in political science and economics.
Sports remained a part of his life. “I still had the tennis bug,” he said. But the tug toward serving God and others did not leave him either — “I got a pretty heavy calling when I was 22.” At this point, he worked closely with church leadership. Later, after he became a husband and father, he felt called to work with young singles and married students at Boise State. He worked a paying job while working with the BSU students in his free time.
“The students, at that age, were at a critical time; some were having moral problems. The key thing I did — the Lord inspired me, and I could help them with a lot of things — the main thing I could tell them, was: turn to your Scripture, turn to your prayers and fasting. The Savior has taken upon Himself the suffering for all our sins; turn to Him for forgiveness,” Dick said.
“It was a very spiritual thing,” said Lawana, “and Dick’s theme was ‘Come Unto Christ.’”
Sometimes, the young people would have health or drug problems and were sometimes in abusive relationships. Dick would tell them, “The Savior understands all these things, and He’s overcome all.” He told them the Lord could give them kindness, direction, peace and comfort, but they had to “humble themselves and build themselves up in prayer.”
Dick served in this ministry for five years and said, “I’ll never forget it as long as I live; it was one of the most wonderful times of my life.”
For 25 years, he worked for Ore-Ida; and for 12 years, he worked for the Idaho Department of Commerce, retiring in 2005. Throughout the course of his life, he participated in four missions, including one with Lawana. “We helped teens learn that they should continue their educations to make them marketable; and we helped them understand that wherever they went, the church would be there,” Dick said. “We encouraged them to continue on their journey of spiritual growth and learning about the Bible, and to associate with other young Christian people.”
The Johnsons started the teen program here in the Treasure Valley and then took it on to eight other states. Said Lawana: “The minute we were called, the inspiration came; the ideas started flowing — the Lord knows what He is doing!”
Dick continued playing tennis over the years and competed in father-daughter tournaments with three of his four daughters, winning seven state titles and winning the big Northwest Regional in 1986. For that, he won an all-expense-paid trip for the whole family to attend — and for Dick and his daughter Shelly to play in — the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, N.Y.
“It was of the biggest prizes in amateur sports,” Dick said.
At one point in his lengthy sports journey, he began playing through pain. At around age 50, he finally had to give up tennis because the pain was too intense. Then, in 2000, he was diagnosed with “very bad” Type 2 diabetes. He wasn’t ready to give up sports entirely, however, and he said that two things happened after his diabetes diagnosis: “I discovered pickleball and went on a real strict diet, tracking everything I ate.”
He lost 50 pounds and got the diabetes under control — not cured, but controlled.
In 2018, he’d become a state tennis champion again and became a world and national champion for the fourth consecutive year in pickleball. It’s a popular game with an unusual name, and it resembles tennis in many ways. The USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) explains at usapa.org that pickleball is “a paddle sport created for all ages and skill levels. The rules are simple and the game is easy for beginners to learn but can develop into a quick, fast-paced, competitive game for experienced players. It’s a fun sport that combines many elements of tennis, badminton and ping-pong. It can be: played both indoors or outdoors on a badminton-sized court and a slightly modified tennis net; played with a paddle and a plastic ball with holes; and played as doubles or singles.”
Also, in 2018, Dick was honored with the national “Personal Best” Award from the CEO of the National Senior Olympic Games, Marc Riker. It is only the second time the award has been given to a pickleball player and the first time it has been given to an Idahoan. While the award is exceptional in its commendation of athletic skills, Dick said, “It means more to me than the trophies and medals, because it’s mostly about character.”
Lawana, who’s fond of labeling herself “a proud and devoted wife,” explained: “It speaks to overcoming challenges, staying motivated and healthy, and inspiring others by example. His belief and lifetime devotion to God, family, community, and service to others is especially noted.”
Just as sports has remained a staple in Dick’s life, so has helping others. He and Lawana traveled to Kenya, where her brother and his wife were missionaries, to provide humanitarian services, specifically working with a measles immunization program for children 6 months to 5 years old.
“We didn’t spend much time as tourists,” Lawana said.
The couple helped organize Christian churches in Mombasa to spread the word about immunization. They also worked in cooperation with the area’s Muslim population.
“We got the people organized to go out and find moms in the bush with young children,” Dick said. “We’d bring them to a central location. One time it was at the largest slum in Mombasa. The kids would get their measles shots — or ‘jabs,’ as they call them — from a member of the Red Cross.”
Children in many countries are at grave risk of dying from measles. Dick quoted a statistic indicating that 500 children a day die of measles in Africa. He said he was originally skeptical of that figure, but as he would go to the villages, he’d sometimes learn about the village medicine men warning mothers not to get their children vaccinated. In order to reduce the people’s fear of the shots, Dick said the mission group would help organize skits written in conjunction with local Kenyans. They’d write the skits in Swahili and English and perform them with native actors. Then, people would be persuaded by the skits that the shots were necessary and safe, and would save lives.
Faith-based work will go on for the couple. As Lawana put it: “We just love life and just love being involved.”
Dick will continue with pickleball, but admitted, “It’s getting harder because I’m getting older.” He’s undergone more health problems, as well as a number of surgeries. Only someone given a notable honor for both his skill and perseverance could sum it up like Dick. “I’m going to keep going as long as I can,” he said. “If I die on the pickleball court, that’s okay.”