Written by Art Vuolo, Jr.
Just last Thursday I was honored to join a table-full of iconic Ann Arbor area sports broadcasters for their weekly lunch at Banfield's Sports Bar on the east side of town. It was good to see Tom Johnston, who I've known since the late 1960's. He was a true sports innovator. I had no idea it would be the last time that I would see Tom. Another longtime friend and chronicler of media in Washtenaw County, Dale R. Leslie, was also at that lunch and provided the following account of Tom Johnston's amazing career:
"Tom Johnston was an Ann Arbor Hometown Boy who grew to earn utmost respect in the collegiate and professional sports world and was paid to do what he loved best- Broadcast Sports. Johnston passed away on Saturday, November 16, 2013 in his residence in Ann Arbor. Memorial Services are slated for mid-December."
Tom, pictured at right, was an innovator over the course of his career with WAAM AM 1600 Ann Arbor and WKBD-TV Channel 50, one of the nation's first all-sports channels. He encouraged the novelty of a tape delay broadcast when the station's schedule became full. With the blessing of University of Michigan Athletic Director Fritz Crisler in the 1960s, he initiated the Coaches Corner show on WAAM that was broadcast during the U-M football, hockey and basketball seasons and was built around the format of a public luncheon. The current U-M Monday noon public meetings with coaches are not broadcast but evolved from Johnston's Coaches Corner.
Tom Johnston was a charter member of Kaiser Broadcasting's WKBD-TV, Channel 50 in Detroit which was a forerunner of today's ESPN when WKBD launched with all-sports format in 1965. Johnston brought television cameras into the dusty, high corners of Big Ten field houses and did play-by-play of Michigan's Cazzie Russell-era exciting basketball teams. I remember seeing Johnston- sitting on a stool, smoking a cigar, alone in a Channel 50 studio- and delivering a detailed sportscast without a stitch of notes.
But his lasting legacy is in the hearts of those he trained and gave a chance to begin a broadcasting career. As a middle-school student, I was his shadow at WAAM radio. "Can you type?" he asked. When I said I could he gave me a story to rewrite. What faith! What a thrill! I can see him rushing down the hall to the broadcast studio completely encased with wire sports copy and smoking a big cigar. He would deliver a polished broadcast and no listener could guess that much of what he was reading was for the first time.
A consummate professional sports broadcaster- that was Tom Johnston. Arrangements are being made through Muehlig Funeral Chapel in Ann Arbor.
Contact Art Vuolo, Jr. via e-mail at email@example.com