Editor's note: The following story was written for an Ivy League Black History Month celebration in 2004. It features Calvin Johnson, our brother and a member of the Los Angeles International Church of Christ. It is reproduced here for archival purposes and is not updated; Calvin provided a recent update at the end of the article.
Dartmouth's Version of the Doctor
Michigan State had two Johnsons on its recruiting wish list during the winter of 1976-77. And then one of them, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, told Spartans head coach Jud Heathcote that he was coming to East Lansing. Not long after, Heathcote called the other Johnson, Calvin of Muskegon's Oakridge High School. In Calvin's words, Heathcote simply told him he didn't need him any more.
"There were two Johnsons who were all-state point guards that year ... one was 5-9 and the other was 6-9," laughed Calvin. "I'll let you decide which one was the best choice." On the basketball floor, a no- brainer. Magic's certainly done a lot of good off the court, too, but read the story of Calvin Johnson and you can't help but be impressed.
One of seven children, he has three brothers and three sisters, Calvin Johnson grew up on an 11-acre farm. His father died in a factory accident when Calvin was just five years old. His mother, Bernice, later married LeRoy Stuckey, and while Calvin says the family didn't have a great deal of material things, "it seemed like we were very rich in love." Johnson also singled out the influences of John Swinburne and Jack Schugars, who taught and coached Calvin in track & field and football from the time he was in the third grade until the time he graduated from high school in 1977.
Johnson's career aspirations began to take shape as a sophomore in high school. "I had a lot of injuries, all of them small," Calvin recalled. "But I had to go to doctors for bumps and bruises and sprains and things like that. And I decided I was going to go to medical school." But he also wanted to do something else, and that was to play Division I basketball. Among the many schools that showed interest in the three-sport young man, who incidentally was all-state in all those sports (football, basketball and track & field), was Dartmouth College. Johnson soon decided Hanover was the place for him.
The Dartmouth head coach at the time was Gary Walters, the current Director of Athletics at Princeton. "Coach Walters was tougher on me than any other coach I'd ever had," said Johnson. "But he taught me a lot about character and perseverance, and that's something I've been able to carry with me to this very day. It didn't matter how well we were doing or how poorly we were doing, he never stopped giving 100 percent in his coaching."
Walters left Dartmouth at the end of Johnson's sophomore year, and Tim Cohane took the coaching reins for the last two seasons of Calvin's career. Johnson fondly remembered his senior season, and the Big Green's tournament victories at the Granite State Classic at the University of New Hampshire and the Manufacturers Hanover Classic at Iona College. He was chosen the MVP of the former event and all- tournament at the latter. That season, while serving as the team's co-captain, Johnson averaged 8.5 points per game and led the team in assists with 89 (3.4 apg.). He was selected an Academic All-American and was a member of Dartmouth's Senior Honor Society.
All the while, a special academic program one of only six pilot programs in the country caught the attention of the Big Green's point guard. Dartmouth's Medical School offered an early-admission scenario to those students who wanted to apply. Johnson, who by the middle of his sophomore year had fulfilled all of his pre-med requirements, jumped at the chance. After interviews and essay writing the summer before his junior year, Johnson was one of five students accepted to the Med School's Class of 1985.
Basketball now behind him, Calvin set out to become Dr. Johnson. As a first-year student he made a find that would change his life forever. He met his future wife, Elaine, who was taking classes at Dartmouth while running a program called ABC, A Better Chance. The program took underprivileged youth from the State of New Jersey and brought them to Hanover to attend high school.
"For our second date," Calvin recalled, "she asked me if I knew how to ski, and I said, `Sure.' I'd never been on skis in my life. I borrowed a buddy's skis, and I bought a brand new pair of Calvin Klein jeans, which were very much in style at the time. By the end of the day, I had fallen so much that these brand new pants had gotten very wet. On my last run I looked back up the mountain, and there were blue patches all the way down the mountain."
Johnson knew from the beginning that Elaine was the woman for him, and despite Calvin's skiing performance that day, Elaine eventually came to the same conclusion. They dated for four years before they were married on the same weekend as medical school graduation (Elaine kidded the family that she never wanted to marry a doctor, so the wedding was on Saturday and the graduation was on Sunday.)
Although he had entered his graduate studies with the intent of becoming an orthopedic surgeon, Johnson took a third-year elective in anesthesiology. Fascinated by the complexities of anesthesia, he wanted to shift gears, but it was too late to change his concentration.
With Elaine ready to start a master's degree program at Harvard, the Johnsons were pretty much tied to the Boston area for their next home. Calvin, now with a firm desire to do his residency in anesthesiology, went to see Dr. Richard Kitz, who was the Chairman of Anesthesiology at Massachusetts General Hospital, the place where as Johnson noted, "anesthesia originated." He pleaded his case directly to Kitz. "I came in his office," said Johnson, "and I told him I may not be the brightest resident you will interview, nor the one that will come in with the most polished credentials, but I guarantee I'll be the hardest working. And I told him that if you don't accept me, you'll be making a big mistake." Kitz replied that the program would be one of the most difficult things Calvin would ever have to go through, and Kitz sent him away to think about it for a couple of days. Johnson called back after the waiting period, as instructed, and said he wanted the Mass General program more than ever. He was accepted.
Lots of things happened to the Johnson family during the Mass General days, but two seem to stand out in Calvin's mind. One involved a very unfortunate episode at the family's rented duplex in Winchester. "I was on-call one night," recalled Johnson, "and it [the house] caught fire. We really lost everything, and it was a week before Christmas." He could have lost a lot more. Both Elaine and Kevin, his son, were at home at the time of the blaze, and both had to be taken from the second floor by firefighters.
The Johnsons were amazed at the outpouring of support and gifts from those who worked with Calvin, mostly because reputation of being impersonal. "Dick Kitz put out a notice, saying this is what happened," Johnson remembered. "It said I [Kitz] want anyone who can to help out Calvin and his family, and I intend to match anything that is given."
Another Mass General employee gave something even more special to Johnson during a late-night conversation while the two were on-call. The conversation centered around belief in God and applying the Bible to everyday life. "Well I believe in God, and I try to do my best," replied Johnson to his friend's questions about religion. And then came the challenge from his friend. "He said, `Would you treat medicine the same as your salvation?' And that really got me thinking. I poured over my medical books. I couldn't read enough about anesthesia and medicine. My only thing was my career, and I was neglecting my wife. I could see the path I was going down. I feel very fortunate to have had God presented to me, and to respond the way I have responded."
His faith walking with him every step of the way, Johnson took his medical career from Boston in 1989 to Urbana, Ill., for a year and then to Hutzel Hospital of Wayne State University in Detroit. He was the Chief of Obstetrical Anesthesia at Hutzel for six years. He remained a very active member of the International Churches of Christ, and his relationship with God continued to grow.
Then, another opportunity came Johnson's way late in 1996 when he was appointed Chairman of the Department of Anesthesiology at the King/Drew Medical Center in Los Angeles. The hospital itself sprang out of the devastation of the Watts riots in 1965. "You look at the pictures [of the surrounding neighborhood], which are only 25 or 30 years old," explained Johnson. "and it looks like you're in a third-world country." The area was in desperate need of a first-rate health-care facility.
Through public funds from the city, county and state governments the hospital opened its doors in 1972. The King in the facility's title is taken from the great Civil Rights activist, Martin Luther King, Jr., but the name of Drew might not be as familiar. Charles R. Drew, an African-American surgeon, pioneered techniques in blood plasma and transfusions that are used today by the American Red Cross and the medical community in general. The medical school that is affiliated with the hospital also bears Drew's name, and its chief mission is to produce doctors for the underserved areas of the city.
King/Drew now serves a population density of 1.3 million people, according to CEO Randall Foster. Just last month, a brand new $65 million trauma center had its ribbon-cutting. "The hospital is one of the leading trauma centers in the world, and we handle about 23 percent of all trauma in L.A. County," said Johnson.
But Johnson's motivation to head west was two-fold. The International Churches of Christ, through an L.A.-based benevolent arm called HOPE worldwide, allows physicians to gain ministry training while they are practicing medicine. "I'm training to become an elder, and I get involved with HOPE projects as they come up," said Johnson. "For example, about a year ago HOPE worldwide established a hospital in Cambodia. My wife and I had to make a decision on whether to go to Cambodia to provide health care there, or come to Charles Drew. We had small kids so it worked out best that we should be here."
Those small kids are growing up quickly. While his son Kevin, who is now 20 years old, already is in college in California, his two younger children Jennifer (10) and David (9) probably will face college decisions someday. The father say he'd have no problem steering them toward the Ivy League. "It's hard for me to say anything negative about the Ivy League," said Johnson. "I think it's the model league for scholastic athletics. It has the appropriate amount of emphasis on, not just athletics, but all activities.
"From a black perspective, you are a minority. But I feel that from a personal standpoint you're really a minority everywhere you go because you have your own convictions ... your own beliefs. Did I have experiences that occurred because I was black? Well, yeah, but the only thing you have total control over is how you respond to situations. You can try to make them better or simply get bitter."
And so life goes on for Calvin Johnson and his family some 3,000-plus miles from his days of starring on the court at Dartmouth's Memorial Gymnasium. His commitment to serve people through his medical training and his religious convictions is quite apparent. The NBA may have gotten "The Doctor" and "Magic," but the nicknames in tandem seem to fit Calvin Johnson even better.-- Charles Yrigoyen III published at IvyLeagueSports.com
Update as of February 11, 2015
Calvin and Elaine remain devoted to God and His church, and continue to serve the poor at home and away. They and their children assisted at a HOPE worldwide clinic in Mexico City for three weeks in 2004. As a physician, Calvin examined patients at the clinic, as his daughter translated from Spanish. The rest of the family brought food an clothing to Mexican families outside the city.
In 2008, they were part of a team that visited India to encourage the workers, and to see what HOPE worldwide could do for the schools, an orphanage, and a newly acquired school. .
In 2010 they visited the Sihanouk Hospital in Cambodia where Calvin performed difficult surgeries and taught a myriad of procedures to the staff at the hospital. They also visited a village a few hours away where they delivered baby formula and food, checked patients and administered medicines they needed.
At home, Calvin and son David have participated in Hoops for Hope, a basketball fundraiser for the hospital in Cambodia. Together they have raised over $100,000 in four years. It has also helped a broader goal of bringing awareness and participation for others to serve the poor. This year it will be on June 6 in Los Angeles.
The family participates every year in serving on MLK day. Additionally, they have developed a program and served as tutors to middle school students. They are currently working with a facility that serves the homeless and the working poor.
Much has been given to them; they have a passion to give back.