'Coach Kak' helped Mayo girls sports on track

Katherine "Kak" Johnson never played the games, because sports for girls weren’t offered when she attended Red Wing High School in the mid 1940s.

But that unfortunate reality didn’t prevent Johnson from finding her way into her high school’s sports Hall of Fame, as well as the Rochester Quarterbacks Club’s Hall of Fame, several decades later.

Johnson was a local pioneer for girls sports as the head coach of several teams at Mayo High School in the early 1970s, including the first Rochester public school girls sports team to play in a state tournament.

"The best years of my life," Johnson says fondly of that period.

"The only experience that I had with sports in high school was we did have a tumbling team; but it wasn’t even gymnastics," recalled Kak, whose maiden name was Swanson when she graduated from Red Wing H.S. in 1947, along with her future husband, Dewey Johnson, and her future boss, Kerwin Engelhart.


"We played basketball, but it was all intrasquad," she noted.

Johnson attended Winona State University, but it wasn’t until her first teaching job at Columbia Heights in 1951 that she was drawn into the re-emergence of girls sports.

"My husband (Dewey) was in the military service in Korea (during the war), and it was a good time for me to stay after school and devote my time to extracurricular activities," she explained.

When Johnson arrived to teach physical education at Columbia Heights there were virtually no sports activities for girls, not even the G.A.A. (Girls Athletic Association). But once she got a whiff of interest among some girls, Johnson fanned the flames of participation.

"Girls would come up to me during the day and ask, ‘Can we stay after school and play in the gym?’ And I could never say no. We’d just have in-school competition among the girls from grades 7-through-12, although mostly it would be sophomores, juniors and seniors."

Eventually Johnson would have what she considered "my own gym" at Columbia Heights, and in her four years there she laid the foundations for the school’s volleyball, basketball and softball programs.

A splash in Rochester

Kak and Dewey Johnson moved to Rochester in 1957, and while Kak took some time away from teaching to raise their three kids, she got more involved in athletics.


"Our three kids were all swimmers, and I became really active in the Rochester Swim Club," she explained.

When Johnson returned to teaching phy-ed at Mayo High School in 1969, she got in on the ground floor of the girls sports groundswell.

"There was nothing competitive for girls at Mayo when I arrived, and initially I became the instructor for the dance line team," she said.

After Title IX opened the door for girls sports in 1972, Johnson helped get sport after sport started at Mayo, along with Diane Ilstrup, who was the school’s first girls activities director. Johnson got the swimming program going in 1971-72, and many of the same girls followed her to track and field in the spring of the same year.

There was plenty of interest.

"I had 50-some girls out for swimming right away, and it also crossed over into track," she said. Among them was Kak’s daughter Debbie, a ‘75 Mayo grad. "Other Big Nine coaches would ask me, ‘How do you get that many girls out?’

"It was too many kids; that was my greatest challenge, finding the time for them all. But it was a good problem because the girls were so ambitious and so enthusiastic."

Johnson said she benefited from the good advice of two veteran Mayo boys coaches at the time, Dick Norman in track, and Dick Thatcher in swimming.


"I don’t think I encountered anybody at that time who really discouraged girls sports," she related.

Kak’s Mayo swim teams became the big fish in a slowly-growing pond, winning 50 of 51 regular-season dual meets from 1974 through 1980.

Uncharted territory

Johnson wasn’t a volleyball expert, but she was a proven coach and that was good enough for Mayo athletic director Evar Silvernagle when he asked Kak to take on that program in 1973.

The Minnesota State High School League conducted its first state volleyball tournament a year later in 1974 and Kak’s Spartans were there, as the first prep girls team to represent Rochester in state competition in the modern era.

After a 10-match regular season, Mayo won the District Three tournament with a pair of 2-0 wins over Red Wing in the semifinals and Winona in the final. Then the Spartans swept Le Roy-Ostrander and New Richland-Hartland in four close games in the Region One semis and final.

Lynn Smyrk came up big in the region tournament with three straight ace serves to beat L-O in the deciding semifinal game, 15-13. She also "kept Mayo in control with her setting and spiking" in the state-clinching 16-14 win over New Richland, according to a Post-Bulletin newspaper account.

Sharon Larson, Sheryl Warfield and Pat Mallan were also among the team’s leaders.


"All I can say right now is that I hope we win the first match," Johnson told the P-B in a short state state preview story, which was accompanied by a team photo.

"Our girls have been cool through this so far. They believe in themselves now. They have awakened and realized they’ve put Mayo on the map in girls sports."

Mayo lost to Moorhead, 15-12, 15-13, in the first round of the inaugural two-day state tournament, which was held at Anoka High School. The Spartans bounced back in the consolation semifinals with a 2-0 win over Windom, and then fell 2-0 in the fifth-place match to Crookston.

"I don’t remember too much about the matches," Johnson admitted. "I had three (of 12) girls who had never stayed in a hotel before, and that was a very exciting thing for the girls.

"Years later, one of those girls told me it was the greatest thing in her life, that I took her to that state tournament."

Kak Johnson retired from full-time teaching and from coaching in 1980, but she and Dewey, a career IBMer, continued to make their mark in the Rochester community through their volunteer efforts. They co-founded the original Ronald McDonald House in Rochester, and shared the 2009 Mayor’s Medal of Honor award.

Through it all, Kak still regards those formative years of high school girls sports as the best times of her life.

"I worked really, really hard to make it interesting and good for the girls, because they were so interested and responsive to anything I’d say or do with regard to sports," she said.


"It was just really, really gratifying to realize that girls were going to have those opportunities."

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