Humans of WEGO: remembering Deej’s legacy


Coach Dan Johnson, surrounded by members of the swim team, circa the mid-1990s. (Photo courtesy of Len Penkala)

By Leslie Fireman, Chronicle Advisor

The fans in the bleachers roar as the relay team completes another 50 meters. The swimmer in lane six completes her flip turn and pushes against the side of the pool with such power, her partners know a win is inevitable. Their voices grow hoarse along the sideline as they cheer her on – but no one is more enthusiastic, more encouraging, than her coach, Dan Johnson.

Johnson stands in front of WEGO’s boys’ swimming record board in the pool area: he coached many of the students who went on to break records for the school. (Photo courtesy of Len Penkala)

West Chicago Community High School mourned the loss of Johnson when he passed away on December 1 after a 13-year battle with cancer. Johnson, also known as DJ or Deej by those who knew him well, left a lasting legacy on both the high school and those who had the opportunity to call him coach, teacher, or friend.

In the late 1970s, Johnson was hired to teach physical education, and when the pool was built in 1978, this four-time conference champion swimmer was first in line to coach the West Chicago Sharks, a position he maintained for 38 years, until his retirement in 2016.

“Dan was such a good coach and teacher. He got to know every swimmer. He emphasized stroke mechanics. We used to go to swimming clinics to learn new skills and coaching techniques every year. The swimmers respected and really liked swimming for him,” former WCCHS physical education teacher and swimming coach Amy Gibson said.

Dan’s goal was to make sure “each kid loved being a swimmer.”

In time, Johnson started the swimming teams at the high school as well. He spent hours at the pool, scheduling both morning and afternoon practices often set against a backdrop of Eagles songs.

“Dan’s passion for sharing his love of swimming with aspiring athletes of all ages led to a strong age group swimming program, which in turn led to a strong high school program. That consistent, ongoing effort led to the first state trophy in any sport at WCCHS in almost twenty years. In the years since the pool was built, he started both high school swim teams, made the state meet an expectation rather than a rare occurrence, and brought the high school team to the podium to receive a trophy which included two state champion relays,” said now-Deacon Leonard (Len) Penkala.

Penkala was hired to coach one of the younger Sharks divisions after serving as a pool supervisor in the early 1980s. He would go on to coach with Johnson for 12 years.

“A few weeks into our professional relationship after a Friday night practice, he turned to me and said, ‘What do you say we stop and pick up a pizza, go to my house and solve all the world’s problems?’ That was the start of our 40-year friendship,” said Penkala.

The two would eventually buy vacation homes next door to each other near Lake Wisconsin.

Len Penkala, left, and Dan Johnson at a restaurant. The two became fast friends in the early 1980s. (Photo courtesy of Len Penkala)

“When Dan saw the ‘A’ frame cabin next door to me and said, ‘If that ever goes for sale, I want to buy it.’ We told the couple next door, and about a year later when it came time to sell, they immediately called me before putting it on the market. Dan bought it and we were next door neighbors for over twenty years. Our best times were spent going for a morning run, boating all day in the bay or up at the sand bars, and then grabbing two guitars and singing songs around the campfire until our fingers bled and our voices gave out,” Penkala said.

At WEGO, Johnson, the recipient of the Distinguished Teacher Award, was known for leading by example.

It is no surprise, then, that he was eventually named department chair. Through that position, Johnson made significant changes to the physical education program during his tenure at the high school. He ensured his staff was up to date in CPR and AED use, and was known for his open-door policy.

“He was great at motivating teachers to do their best. You knew that he cared about our department and the students,” Gibson said.

Johnson worked to offer a greater variety of P.E. classes so that upperclassmen could choose the courses that suited their interests, much like electives.

“He wanted students to like the classes that they took in PE,” said Gibson.

Additionally, he established a physical education program centered around pre- and post-partum care in an effort to keep teen moms in school.

Johnson was also instrumental in writing the grants that helped fund the rock-climbing wall in the fieldhouse, and is credited with starting the climbing program at the high school.

He hired current Athletic Director Nick Parry in 2007. Parry initially turned down the job, but was swayed by Johnson’s direct manner.

“When he called up to offer me the job, it was just coaching, and I said, ‘I don’t think I can make this work with my other teaching job. I’m going to have to turn it down.’ He goes, ‘Okay, I appreciate that. It’s not the answer I want to hear, so I’m going to give you a call back on Monday, and we’re going to talk about this again, and you’re going to give me a different answer,” Parry said.

Sure enough, when Johnson phoned back on Monday, Parry accepted the position.

He was known for his positive outlook on life.

“The biggest thing with him is that he was a relentlessly positive person. And that carried over to swimming. Those kids could absolutely drive him nuts, and he’d walk up to them and give them an opportunity to grow. We had meets where everybody was horrendously bad, and he’d say, ‘Oh no, it was a great meet. Everybody had a great time.’ And that’s something that I have tried to take from him,” said Parry.

Johnson and Penkala with senior members of the 1996 swim team. (Photo courtesy of Len Penkala)

Coaching and mentoring were Johnson’s passions. He started both high school swimming teams, and trained a number of Junior Olympic qualifiers, including Jenny Weigand, a WEGO alum, the first Junior Olympic champion in Sharks history. He advised several Junior National and National qualifiers as well.

Johnson, whose motto was “work hard, swim fast, and have fun,” was awarded Coach of the Year by the state of Illinois in 1989 and 1991. Under his guidance, the girls’ high school swim team finished third in the state in 1992 as well.

“That consistent, ongoing effort led to the first state trophy in any sport at WCCHS in almost twenty years,” Penkala said.

Even in retirement, Johnson continued to serve as announcer at swim meets for several years.

“In the short time I knew him, I could always tell how passionate he was about our team, our school, and our community. Even when he was several years removed from the team, he was always so invested in the success of the swimmers and their coaches. He was a great person and has inspired so many,” current swim team assistant coach Josh May said.

“As a coach, Dan handled each student and swimmer as the most important person at that particular moment; he inspired others to be their best. If he set high expectations, it was because he knew that athlete could be better than he or she ever imagined. He knew success comes through determination and tenacity.  He knew the feeling an athlete would get through success.  He gave them a roadmap to success, not just for that season or school year, but for life,” Penkala said.