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TH sports legend and Chronicle columnist “Fats” passes away

Grant “Fats” Johnson reading the News-Chronicle in Florida earlier this year. The Two Harbors native passed away July 1. Photo courtesy of Kathie Schaffler. 1 / 2
“Fats” was a star basketball player at Two Harbors High School -- this photo is from 1934. He went on to play basketball at the University of Minnesota. Photo courtesy of Kathie Schaffler.2 / 2

Kyle Farris

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For many years, it wasn’t a rare occurrence to find Grant “Fats” Johnson wandering along the rocky shoreline of Lake Superior. An avid agate hunter, the only thing that changed as Johnson grew older was the tool he used to unearth the precious stones -- his golf club became a cane.

Johnson lived a full and productive 98-year life that came to an end July 1 in Maitland, Fla. He was known for the deep imprints he left in communities across Minnesota, especially through his work in education and local athletics.

Called “Fats” for his uncommon 12-pound weight as a newborn, Johnson grew up in Two Harbors and was an outstanding student-athlete at Two Harbors High School, graduating first in his class and collecting seven varsity letters.

He had a vast network of friends that wasn’t limited to the North Shore. Kathie Schaffler, his first of four daughters and five children, said it seemed as if he knew every person in the state.

“We’re getting cards left and right about this story and that story,” Schaffler said Saturday.

As a boy, Johnson spent more time in the Two Harbors Carnegie Library than some of the books themselves. His parents couldn’t afford to buy many books, Schaffler said.

“He only had a Bible in his house, so he lived at the Carnegie Library morning, noon and night, when he wasn’t playing basketball,” she said.

Johnson eventually left Two Harbors to enroll at Gustavus Adolphus College. He returned home the following summer and told his family he wanted to transfer to the University of Minnesota.

“He said there wasn’t enough to keep him going,” Schaffler said. “He needed something bigger.”

Johnson was able to attend the U of M for just $10, under the condition that he would tape up ankles for the football team and help out during practice.

He was in charge of making sure scouts from opposing schools didn’t enter the field while the team was practicing. One day, a man came up to Johnson (who was now going by a new nickname: Spike) and asked if he could get onto the field.

“Dad said, ‘I’m sorry. I can’t let you in. But I’ll tell you what, if you go up to the library, you can look down and see them playing,’” Schaffler said.

The man thanked him and started to walk away, but it crossed Johnson’s mind that the man might have a son on the team. So he asked.

“He said, ‘No, I’m the president of the University of Minnesota.’ So Dad let him in,” Schaffler said. “When he came back out, the guy said, ‘By the way, Spike, if you ever want to visit my office, you can go right in.’”

Schaffler said Johnson was so excited he called his mom that night to tell her the story.

Johnson was better known for his prowess on the basketball court. He was a key contributor for the Golden Gophers’ Big 10 championship team in 1937, along with John Kundla, who went on to coach the Minneapolis Lakers to five NBA titles.

In 2008, 70 years after he last suited up for the Golden Gophers, Johnson received a call from former U of M head basketball coach Tubby Smith. The coach told Johnson he would be inducted into the school’s athletic hall of fame later that year.

“He was so overwhelmed,” Schaffler said. “He sat in his chair for two hours and kept saying, ‘I thought they’d forgotten about me.’” He was also inducted to the Two Harbors High School Athletic Hall of Fame.

Johnson told story after story to an engrossed audience at the induction ceremony, Schaffler said. He received three standing ovations.

“They just couldn’t get enough of him,” she said.

Johnson and his wife, Kathlyn, raised their family in Detroit Lakes, Minn., and lived there for most of their lives.

For 38 years, Johnson was a teacher, educator and superintendent in the area.

He was a frequent visitor at dozens of one-room schools across the countryside and was later responsible for consolidating them into one facility.

When the school houses were still open, Schaffler said her dad was bothered by the fact that many of the kids didn’t have mittens and seemingly couldn’t afford haircuts.

“I don’t know how he ever did this, but he talked the barber in town into letting the one-room school kids come in and have one haircut a month,” Schaffler said.

He also had his secretary deliver boxes of hats and mittens to the kids.

“They never knew who they were from,” Schaffler said. “Dad didn’t want anyone to know.”

Johnson helped groom the next generation of student-athletes in the area, too. He was president of the State of Minnesota High School League and talked the YMCA in Two Harbors into opening its gym for players on the weekends.

While living in Detroit Lakes, Johnson still visited Two Harbors to see his friends and enjoy life along the North Shore. He donated computers to the Carnegie Library and had a column entitled “Good ole Days!” in the Lake County News Chronicle. He still collected agates, which he brought home to polish and turn into jewelry.

In 1998, Johnson and his wife moved to central Florida, where three of their daughters were already living. Kathlyn had what was later diagnosed as Alzheimer’s disease, and Johnson was having a hard time taking care of her alone. She died in March of 2001.

Johnson lived in Florida for the rest of his life and didn’t move into an assisted living home until he reached his mid-90s. He drove a car until his late 80s and set aside four hours each day to do the New York Times crossword puzzle.

“He had a mind on him like a hawk,” Schaffler said. “His mind was phenomenal. He could talk Twins, Vikings, golf -- he loved Tiger Woods. You’d never see anything on the TV but sports.”

Johnson credited his longevity to swimming, Schaffler said. He swam laps almost every day and was only forced to quit within the last year. His usual swimming spot was at the Orlando Magic’s old training facility, where players often came to exercise or rehab injuries.

“One day, Shaquille O’Neal was there -- Shaq knew him because he was there all the time,” Schaffler said. “Shaq says, ‘Just bought a new car. Want to come out and look at it?’ Dad goes out, and Shaq says, ‘Get in. Let’s go for a ride.’ He got to come back and say, ‘My God. I rode in Shaq’s car.’”

Another of Johnson’s daughters works as a photo stylist in the Orlando area. She was putting together the wardrobe for a Pepsi commercial featuring the 7-foot, 300-pound O’Neal when she had an idea.

“She was ironing all of Shaq’s clothes,” Schaffler said, “and she brought them home and said to Dad, ‘I want you to try these on.’ Dad tried on Shaq’s shorts. Of course, they didn’t stay on, but we got a picture of him.”

Schaffler said her dad was in good health until he fell last November, breaking his hip and femur. He spent a few months in a nursing home before he was released in March.

“He just wasn’t the same after that,” she said.

Johnson was diagnosed with bladder cancer this spring. He had surgery, but Schaffler said she believes the cancer was ultimately what killed him.

He is survived by his five children: Kathie, Jeff, Jennifer, Candyce and Robbin. The family, which Schaffler said remains close, has plans to return to Two Harbors Sept. 18 for the funeral.

Per a request in Johnson’s will, they’re going to walk along the same rocky North Shore that he used to comb with a golf club and later a cane. Schaffler said Johnson wanted everyone to find an agate to bring home.

“That was Dad,” she said.


Johnson’s family is setting up a scholarship fund for a Two Harbors High School graduating senior basketball player in Johnson’s name. To donate to the fund, contact Scott Ross at THHS at (218) 834-8201 ext. 8242. Donations can also be mailed to Kathe Johnson Schaffler, Grant Johnson Memorial Fund, 345 Lake Seminary Circle, Maitland, Fla., 32751.