Howard Professor Thomas Johnson

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 26, 2007

Thomas Fairfax Johnson, 90, founder of the Howard University Division of Allied Health Sciences, who played in the Negro baseball leagues in his youth, died March 21 at the Fairland Adventist Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Silver Spring. He had Alzheimer's disease.

Dr. Johnson worked at Howard for 32 years, teaching undergraduate and medical school classes and coaching the baseball, swimming and football teams.

The Philadelphia native had graduated from Springfield College when he began playing professional baseball for the Philadelphia Stars in the summer of 1940. Dubbed "the Li'l Professor" by his teammates, he was a well-built, 6-foot-1-inch, 180-pound right-handed pitcher. He returned to baseball in 1950, when he barnstormed with the Indianapolis Clowns, becoming friends with Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson, among other stars of the era.

"He had a presence when he walked into a room," said his stepson, Herman W. Phynes III.

Whether in the classroom, on the athletic fields or in social gatherings, Dr. Johnson attracted people with quiet but fascinating stories of his experiences.

In the 1940s, when earning a high school degree was considered an achievement for many Americans and segregation was still considered the normal educational experience, Dr. Johnson received a master's degree in health and physical education at New York University in 1947. While there, he played for the New York Brown Bombers football team. He also organized and promoted baseball while volunteering for the Harlem Boys Club's Children's Aid Society.

During World War II, he served in the Army-Navy USO in Michigan, Indiana and Hawaii. He set up and directed the USO Rainbow Club in Honolulu, which served African American servicemen. While in Hawaii, he pitched for the Hawaii Tigers in a senior league.

After the war, he returned to Washington and began teaching at Howard. He developed an intercollegiate swim team at the school, and he served as chairman of the NCAA's intercollegiate swimming committee from 1950 to 1958. He also revived Howard baseball as a competitive sport, after an absence of 25 years, and picked up the sobriquet "Skipper."

During school breaks, Dr. Johnson returned to his own athletic career, pitching for the Brandon Greys in Manitoba, Canada, and the Baltimore Black Sox. In 1952, he successfully integrated the local Industrial Sandlot League, pitching for the Heurich Brewers.

He also worked summers at segregated camps in Prince William County, where city children went to escape the heat and humidity of Washington.

By 1963, when Dr. Johnson was 46, he was the batting practice pitcher for the Cleveland Indians while the team was playing the Senators in Washington. The same year, he scouted for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

In his academic life, Dr. Johnson left the undergraduate division of Howard in 1958 to become a research assistant in the medical school, teaching basic courses while he worked toward a doctorate, which he received in 1967 from the University of Maryland. Dr. Johnson then became an associate professor on Howard's medical faculty.

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