Archdeacon: Remembering Wilbur Johnston -- ‘He was a good man’

His oldest daughter summed it up.

“He sure lived an interesting life,” Barb Bartel said. “He always said that at 19 he was flying over Italy, fighting in World War II. And at 21, he was at Madison Square Garden, playing for Ohio State in the NCAA Tournament.

“Then he’d smile and say, ‘Not bad for a boy from Sidney.’”

Wilbur Johnston was born in the Shelby County city in 1925 and died last week. He was 96.

Before he was a young navigator on a B-24 bomber with the 456th Bombardment Group – flying 57 missions including 35 sorties in Italy, Austria, Romania and Hungary and being awarded two Distinguished Unit Citations – Johnston was a Sidney High School sports star.

He won 11 varsity letters – in football, basketball, tennis and track – and in 1999 was enshrined in Sidney High’s Hall of Honor.

And after he played on that 1945-46 Buckeyes team that won the Big Ten, lost to North Carolina in the national semifinal and then beat California in the Final Four consolation, Johnston had an even more impressive sports career as one of the premier horsemen in Ohio thoroughbred racing history.

He teamed with the late George Smith – another former Ohio State athlete of note – to launch Woodburn Farm on 110 acres along Nutt Road south of Dayton.

It became one of the most prominent racing facilities in the Midwest and for 35 years they bred and owned numerous stakes winners, state champions and celebrated national runners, including Breeders Cup filly Extended Applause, who finished in the money in 15 of her 23 races and won $408,500.

Later, Sidney golf pro Rob Fridley and his wife Sue joined Johnston and his wife Letitia – known as Tee – in Fourwyn Stable, which had had previous success with several noted horses including Ray’s World, which won the Illinois Derby.

The new partnership produced several successful horses, including the Best of Ohio bay filly Teerrific Sue, a multiple stakes winner that was named after the two wives.

Speaking of Tee, she and Wilbur had been high school sweethearts and wed in 1947. They were married 66 years when she passed away in 2014.

They had five children and two survive: Barb, who lives on a farm outside of Troy that she once shared with her late husband Dale, and Ann, who is married to Ray Taketa and lives in Lafayette California, northeast of San Francisco. Since retiring after nearly 35 years as an attorney, Ann now works as a volunteer teaching English and citizenship to newcomers to this country.

While both daughters acknowledge their dad’s myriad accomplishments – Dr. Wilbur Johnston was also a well-known dentist in Kettering for decades – they say what’s most important is not what he did, but the way he did it.

“He was kind and gentle and he knew what friendship was,” Ann said. “He had friendships that lasted eight decades. He was a good husband, a good father. He was my hero.

“He was a good man and I think if you talked to other people, they’d tell you the same thing.”

She’s right:

»”He was a very honest guy and had a good sense of humor,” said Dr. James Gable, a retired veterinarian and member of the Ohio Racing Commission who was thoroughbred owner himself and partnered with Johnston on horses. “He was just a damned nice guy.”

»Fridley said he spoke to Johnston by phone nearly every day the past 25 years and often went to dinner with him: “He was like a second dad to me.”

»John Engelhardt – the former River Downs racing publicist who is now the popular host of the long-running Winning Ponies radio show/podcast now on VoiceAmerica Variety Channel (Thursdays, 8 p.m) – knew Johnston for decades.

During visits to his Bethany Village home, he said he’d tutor Johnston’s young caregivers on his storied past, telling them: “I want you to know you’re taking care of someone really special here.”

»Don Donoher, the legendary Dayton Flyers basketball coach and a lover of horse racing himself, not only used to go to the races, but he did volunteer work for nearly two decades at Woodburn Farm. Johnston was also his dentist, so he knew him well.

“He was a good person,” Donoher said. “Anyone who knew him will tell you that.

“He was just a beautiful guy.”

‘Loved the horses’

In recent years Johnston had taken up another pastime: knitting.

“He had had a stroke and if affected his peripheral vison so he couldn’t drive anymore or play golf,” Barb said. “It limited a lot of things he used to do so he stated knitting scarves. He made them for everyone.”

Englehardt was a regular recipient.

“He’d go, ‘John, what colors do you want?’ And I’d say, ‘blue and red’ and he’d go, ‘OK, I got a scarf coming your way.’ I think it helped him with his mental acuity. He would have to use his eyes and his hands and it was completing a task. It was good for him.”

Monday, Engelhardt said he went to visit Johnston as he often did: “I’d always just knock on the door and then walk in. But this time the door was locked. I rang the bell a couple of times, but still no answer.

“His place was decorated outside like it always was with his Ohio State stuff, but I got this real strange feeling. And when I called Rob, I found out he’d passed a few days earlier.”

Ann said a private memorial for family will be held at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Kettering in late May.

As for those OSU decorations, the Buckeyes were always big in Johnston’s life.

“We were huge Ohio State fans and we all knew the Ohio State fight song,” Barb said and then laughed. “But Mom went to Michigan, so she tried to teach us the Michigan fight song. It was always a fun rivalry at our house.”

The ties to OSU likely helped cement Johnson’s partnership with Smith.

Before he was wheelchair-bound, Smith was a three-year OSU letterman who, as a senior captain, led the Buckeye team to a 22-stroke victory for the Big Ten title. He was considered one of the best amateurs in the nation in 1954, but he went into the Army, contracted polio at age 23 and never walked again.

That’s when he switched to racing and eventually found a kindred spirit in Johnston.

“Dad loved the horses,” Ann said. “He loved seeing them born and the training and the racing. He thought it was great sport.”

‘We need more like him’

Fridley said he first met Johnston at Keeneland in 1988 when Risen Star – who’d win the Preakness and Belmont Stakes later that season – won the Lexington Stakes two weeks before the Kentucky Derby.

After the race, the bay colt’s co-owner and trainer Louie Roussel III hosted a dinner and Wilbur and Tee were invited as were Rob and Sue. Although the couples hadn’t known each other beforehand, their bond was formed.

Three weeks later the two couples again met by chance at the Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans and soon after that Rob and Wilbur bumped into each other at a Sidney High basketball game and that cemented the friendship.

It included a mutual love of horse racing, golf and friendly wagering on sporting events.

“I may have the numbers a little off, but several years ago, Doc and Rob pooled something like $500 to make their bets and they never had to replenish it,” Engelhardt said. “They always had winning seasons and every so often Rob would drive to Dayton and take Doc out to dinner on their earnings.”

Fridley laughed when asked about their betting brotherhood:

“Wilbur liked to gamble – just small time – whether it was on horse racing, baseball, basketball, football or the two of us playing golf. One time we even bet on the spelling bee.

“It didn’t matter, as long as we had action going. That gave us something to talk about and something for Wilbur to focus on and look forward to. It kept his mind sharp.”

But Fridley said his surest bet was knowing Johnston always gave him good advice in life:

“He was a good mentor for me when I was 26 years old. He taught me a lot of things about people and myself.

“He taught me it’s important to take time to sit down and write someone a thank you note. And it’s important to go to a funeral home to pay your respects. To him it didn’t matter if he had to drive to Cleveland for just 15 minutes at the viewing.

“He said distance didn’t matter. It was about effort. It was about doing the right thing.”

Asked about her do-right dad, Ann needed a few seconds to compose herself.

“You’re going to make me cry,” she said quietly. “He was just a good, good human being. He believed in the best in people and was just kind to everyone.

“We need more like him.”

About the Author