Jeff Johnson, hall of fame swimming coach at Acton-Boxborough Regional High School, dies at 74
When Acton-Boxborough Regional High School’s Jeff Johnson received the National Interscholastic Swimming Coaches Association’s Outstanding Service Award in 2015, his remarks were not about his many accomplishments.
Instead, he talked about his fellow coaches, his swimmers, and his wife, Marjorie, whom he called “my biggest supporter,” adding the honor was “very humbling to me. I’m kind of a quiet guy — until I get on a pool deck.”
When he was on the deck, whether as Acton-Boxborough’s coach for 41 seasons, founder of the Patriot Swim Club, or the former coach of the Acton-Boxborough Town Team, Mr. Johnson set high standards.
“My favorite saying of his was, ‘We’ve got a long way to go,’ because no matter how fast our team went, there was always room for improvement,” said Corben Miles, one of Mr. Johnson’s top swimmers who is now a varsity swimmer at Georgia Tech. “He was the most inspirational coach I’ve ever had.”
Mr. Johnson, whose boys’ and girls’ teams at Acton-Boxborough posted more than 500 dual meet victories, died Friday in his Leominster home after a short illness. He was 74.
“He was like the godfather of Massachusetts high school swimming,” said Mr. Johnson’s longtime friend and coaching opponent Pete Foley, a former Weston High athletic director whose own swim teams won more than 600 meets. “He was a tremendous mentor for young coaches, and talking to him was like a swimming clinic.”
Foley, who is meet director for the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, added that Mr. Johnson not only understood where his athletes were coming from, but where they wanted to go and that he “found the right fit for the kids instead of trying to make them fit into a process.”
A moment of silence for Mr. Johnson was observed at last weekend’s MIAA swimming championships.
When Mr. Johnson was inducted into the Acton-Boxborough Colonial Club Athletic Hall of Fame last year, his accompanying biography noted that “when one walks by the entry to the pool the cacophony of the sounds of kicking, pulling, splashes, and shouts of encouragement are joined by the steady commands of Coach Johnson, armed with the ever-present stopwatch and the human calculator in his head.”
Mr. Johnson also was inducted into the Eastern Mass. Interscholastic Swim Coaches Association hall of fame. His name was added to the national interscholastic association trophy on display at the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
His Acton-Boxborough teams won 13 Dual County League titles, 10 Sectional titles, and nine state championships. He was a National Federation of State High School Association’s north section Coach of the Year, a multiple Boston Globe Coach of the Year, and six-time Eastern Mass. Swim Coach of the Year.
He also received National Interscholastic Swimming Coaches Association’s David H. Robertson Excellence in Coaching Award in 2005 and was the Massachusetts representative to that organization at the time of his death.
According to his wife, Mr. Johnson’s most treasured memento, presented by the Eastern Mass. swim coaches in 2013, was the Jack McDonald Award, the organization’s highest honor. Named for the late Waltham High coach, it is given to those with the qualities of fairness, dedication, and respect for high school swimming.
“Jeff knew Jack McDonald, and for that and what the award represented, he was very moved,” Marjorie said.
Born in Leominster, Jeffrey Francis Johnson was a son of Elmer Johnson, a great all-around athlete at Leominster High, and the former Frances Smith.
The couple’s other son, Richard, went on to coach the swim team at Leominster High. In 1998, Richard was inducted into the Eastern Mass. Interscholastic Swim Coaches Association Hall of Fame alongside his brother, Jeff, whom he coached against in the Dual County League for many years.
“Our dad was a starter at Leominster High swim team meets and was its interim coach for a year,” Richard recalled.
He added that their father, “who was also a professional wrestler under the name of Red McDonald, taught us the competitive edge and how to handle ourselves. And our mom, who worked as an accountant, kept all our statistics as athletes — more than you’d want to know.”
Jeff Johnson, a 1963 graduate of Leominster High who later expanded the Stingrays swim program at the city’s recreation center, was a backstroke specialist on the Bemidji State swimming team in Minnesota.
After graduating with a physical education degree, he was a physical education teacher and girls’ basketball coach at Wachusett Regional High School.
In 1972, he married Marjorie Temple. She and her brother-in-law, Richard, are Mr. Johnson’s only immediate survivors. Funeral services were held Wednesday in Sterling.
“I admired his dedication to his athletes and to his sport, his honesty, and his compassion,” said Marjorie, a teaching assistant in the special education department at Acton-Boxborough Regional. “He loved wholeheartedly.”
Mr. Johnson began coaching the Acton-Boxborough boys’ team in 1977 and the girls’ team in 2002. He coached the Town Team from 1975 to 2014 and founded the Patriot Swim Club in Acton in 1992.
The club includes swimmers from other area high schools and it was not uncommon over the years for them to line up against one another in MIAA championship meets.
Mr. Johnson, who once took the club members and staff on an excursion to Scotland, worked for 34 years as a dispatcher with the Leominster Department of Public Works, retiring in 2005.
“He was humbled to be acknowledged for his coaching; however, for Jeff it was not about the recognition,” the New England Swimming Inc. said in a tribute posted online. “He always believed the focus of a swimmer’s success should be the individual, not the club name or the coaching.”
Richard said that when his brother pointed himself toward a goal, nothing would stop him, “but he did it quietly and with humility. And although he may not have said it, he was quite proud of what he accomplished.”