Former CEO of Western Golf Association Dead at 77
Lake Bluff resident responsible for building Evans Scholarship program.
Lake Bluff resident Donald D. Johnson, former president and CEO of the Western Golf Association/Evans Scholars Foundation, died May 24 at his home.
Johnson, 77, led the WGA and the WGA-sponsored Evans Scholars Foundation from 1988 until his retirement in 2009.
During Johnson’s tenure, 4,000 young men and women received their college educations as Evans Scholars and thousands of professional, amateur and junior golfers participated in WGA championships – the BMW Championship (formerly the Western Open), the Western Amateur and the Western Junior.
“Don enjoyed a lifelong love of, and respect for, the game of golf,” said John Kaczkowski, current WGA/ESF president and CEO. “He was dedicated to giving back to the game through his work with our scholarships and championships, and he clearly has succeeded.”
Under his leadership, the organization progressed from a position of near financial insolvency to a solid fiscal standing, with a $45 million endowment and ownership of 14 Evans Scholarship Houses, all debt free.
“Don’s leadership skills were vital to our organization’s success for more than two decades,” Kaczkowski said. “His leadership resulted in the presentation of world-class championships that were admired and respected throughout the golf world.
“Don’s focus on building a firm financial base for our Evans Scholars program afforded thousands of young men and women the opportunity to earn their college degrees on his watch,” added Kaczkowski. “In the face of ever-increasing tuition costs, and with the added expense of constructing and maintaining our scholarship houses, we continued to provide full funding for more than 800 Evans Scholarships annually. That is truly a noteworthy achievement.”
A memorial service is being planned for early June.
For Johnson, the road to Golf, Ill., and his career at the Western Golf Association, started in Racine, Wis., where he first was introduced to the game of golf at Washington Park, a nine-hole public course, where his first job was in the refreshment stand selling soft drinks and hot dogs. Johnson, who still sported a respectable handicap of 11.7 at age 74, honed his golf skills at Washington Park when he wasn’t working.
Two years later, he began caddying at Meadowbrook Country Club, gaining an early perspective on the path all Evans Scholars candidates take in their pursuit of a WGA-sponsored college scholarship.
In 1953, he was the medalist in the Wisconsin State Golf Association Junior Championship. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1959, he earned his law degree at Wisconsin in 1961. For the next 26 years, Johnson practiced law in Madison while devoting much of his free time to playing and serving the game of golf.
He became a member of Nakoma Golf Club, where he was elected to the Board of Directors and, in 1975-76, served as president. Johnson became a Wisconsin State Golf Association director in 1979 and a Western Golf Association director in 1984. In 1988, he was named WSGA president before being selected as the WGA’s new executive director on July 1, 1988.
Mr. Johnson’s investment in golf evolved into a 22-year career as a full-time golf administrator directing the WGA/ESF. In 2007, his formal title was changed to president and CEO. When he retired at the end of 2009, he left behind a legacy of service to the game of golf few have attained.
Johnson was inducted into the Wisconsin Golf Hall of Fame in 2008, and in 2009 the Evans Scholars National Committee presented Johnson with an honorary Evans Scholarship for his years of service.
Johnson was born April 25, 1935, in Racine, Wis., the son of Beatrice and Harry Deane Johnson. He is survived by his wife, Jane; a son, Benjamin, at home; two daughters, Mindy Carter, Madison, Wis., and Tally Nathan, Paradise Valley, Ariz.; four grandchildren, Nikki Nametz, Brittany Klutsky, Max Nathan and Brenner Nathan; and one sister, Lisa Hillyer, Colorado Springs, Colo. He was preceded in death by his parents and one sister, Pamela Helfrich.
Memorials honoring Johnson may be made to the Evans Scholars Foundation, One Briar Road, Golf, IL 60029, or online at www.wgaesf.org.
- information courtesy of Western Golf Association