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Shanley wins region golf title for former coach, who's been told he has only weeks to live

Tuesday, September 24, 2019   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Administration
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Written By: Kevin Schnepf | 

Fargo Shanley’s Greta McArthur competes in the North Dakota East Region girls golf tournament Monday, Sept. 23, in Wahpeton. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
Fargo Shanley’s Greta McArthur competes in the North Dakota East Region girls golf tournament Monday, Sept. 23, in Wahpeton. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor 


There were times Monday — while the Fargo Shanley High School girls golfers were winning a region championship in Wahpeton — that they couldn’t help but think of their former coach Don Johnson.

Johnson was back at his home in Fargo still coping with the news he received last month that he may have only weeks to live. The 77-year-old Johnson, who had coached golf at Shanley since 1987, was diagnosed with the worst stage of leukemia on Aug. 14.

“It has been a motivation for our team,” said Shanley senior Julia Wold. “I think we are still his team. If we win state, it would be for him.”

A Shanley girls golf team has not won a state meet since Johnson coached the Deacons to three straight titles from 2005 to 2007. If there is ever a year for Shanley to win again, this is it — considering the Deacons have a well-balanced team that can give Bismarck Century and Minot a run for the title.


And then, there is Johnson — often called ‘grandpa’ whose love for the game of golf has certainly been passed on to the Shanley players who visited Johnson at his home this past weekend. Johnson told them how proud he is of them, knowing they would be pretty good after placing runner-up at last year’s East Region tournament.


This year's Fargo Shanley Invitational girls golf meet was renamed the Don Johnson Invitational in honor of the former Shanley coach. Renee Clasen / Special to The Forum
This year's Fargo Shanley Invitational girls golf meet was renamed the Don Johnson Invitational in honor of the former Shanley coach. Renee Clasen / Special to The Forum


There is junior Greta McArthur, who was a co-medalist with 79 before losing on the first playoff hole to Red River’s Lily Bredemeirer; senior Ellie Baumgartner, who tied for sixth with an 87; Wold and freshman Lindsey Astrup, who tied for 10th with 88s; sophomore Sophie Keelin who placed 18th with a 92 and senior Anna Gravalin, who tied for 19th with a 93. It was Keelin’s score that was better than Grand Forks Red River’s fifth-best score that gave Shanley the team title.

“We want to make him proud,” Wold said of Johnson. “All season long, I have thought of him in the back of my mind whether it’s at the end of a meet or in the middle of the meet. He really helped me with my attitude. He would always remind me, one shot is not going to define your round. You can come back from that if you just keep your head up.”

And that is exactly what Johnson has been doing ever since doctors told him he had leukemia.

On Tuesday, Aug. 13, Johnson played 36 holes of golf at the Hawley (Minn.) Golf Club — nearly shooting his age with scores of 80 and 82. But the next day, he finally went to see the doctor after coughing, feeling weak and tiring out easily for most of the summer.

You have leukemia, he was told.

“What a slap in the face,” Johnson said.

And you probably have two weeks, he was told.


“Oooh, that’s harsh,” Johnson said.

While being treated on the seventh floor of Fargo’s Sanford Medical Center, Johnson taught the nurses how to putt on a putting track with a return that was brought up to his room. He awarded any nurse who made a putt with a bag of mini cookies.

When he was released from the hospital last Wednesday, Johnson was back on the golf course — this time riding a cart at the Fargo Country Club to watch his grandson Lucas Johnson practice with the North Dakota State men’s golf team.

“He’s always willing to talk golf … that is Don,” said Shari McTaggart, who took over as Shanley’s girls golf coach after serving three years as Johnson’s assistant. “I have the utmost respect for that man. His care and his love for the kids was so evident. He loves the sport of golf and he loves to see kids love the sport.”

After the Shanley girls learned that Johnson was diagnosed with leukemia, McArthur led a team prayer prior to a meet at Fargo’s Rose Creek Golf Course dedicating the day to Johnson. Players from all the teams signed a poster that was sent to Johnson.

Shanley posted one of its lowest team scores of the season and McArthur shot a career-low score of 72.

“It was for him,” McArthur said.

The Shanley Invitational at the Fargo Country Club was renamed the Don Johnson Invitational, with a colorful banner to prove it.

“They wanted me to be there to say few words, but I was in the hospital,” Johnson said.

“Everybody knows who he is,” Wold said. “It just reminded us that he was there with us in spirit.”

Johnson is a 1959 Shanley graduate, but he never played golf in high school. He came close when he was a seventh-grader working at a driving range once located between Moorhead and Dilworth. That’s where he discovered he could hit a golf ball pretty good.

But it wasn’t until he was 20 years old when he bought a set of clubs at Scheels Hardware for $29.95. He was there with his wife-to-be to buy a set of dishes.

They immediately drove to play the nine-hole course near Barnesville, Minn. Much to the surprise of his wife who had golfed before, Johnson shot a 40.

“That was kind of fun … I was hooked,” Johnson said.

Johnson hasn’t put down a club since. At age 68, he shot his age. He has shot his age or better 25 times. He was a driving force behind the FM junior golf tour. And, of course, he coached boys and girls golf at Shanley for 32 years.

He would preach to his high school golfers to use an 8-iron instead of a wedge when chipping near the green. Three years ago, Shanley girl golfers presented Johnson with an old 8-iron for a coach’s gift.

“Whenever he showed us how to chip with the 8-iron, I swear every time he would make it,” McArthur said.

“I would always argue with him at practice that I did not like to use it,” Wold said. “If I will blade a chip across the green, I will always think of him saying ‘you should’ve used the 8-iron.’”

Johnson, who coached his grand-daughter Cassie Johnson two years ago at Shanley, is grandpa to all the Shanley golfers. He was the grandpa who once microwaved some golf balls to warm them up on a cold day, only to place them in his pocket and burn his leg. He was the grandpa who would at times wear a cowboy hat to practice for no particular reason.

But he was the grandpa who constantly told his golfers to forget the bad shots and focus on the next one.

“I just think of him telling me to stay positive and keep my head up,” McArthur said.

Just what Johnson is doing during these trying times.

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