Salem former Olympian to be recognized for promoting literacy

Dave Johnson will by honored April 29 at the Mid-Valley Literacy Center’s annual gala (Submitted photo)

For two-time decathlon Olympian and Salem resident Dave Johnson, it’s no exaggeration to say that education changed the entire trajectory of his life.

Johnson had moved from Montana to the Willamette Valley when he was in high school. It was at Crescent Valley High School that he met two educators who convinced him to take himself and his life seriously. He remembers them by name: Butch Wicks and Clyde Marshall. 

Johnson will be presented this week with the 2022 Literacy Trailblazer award, an honor bestowed annually by the Salem-based Mid-Valley Literacy Center to someone who’s had an impact on literacy in their lives.

“I was kind of in trouble growing up a little bit. In Montana I was breaking into houses, part of the group of kids that were drinking quite a bit,” Johnson said. “A lot of my first three years of high school – and really middle school when it all started – was really running around and getting into trouble.”

When he arrived in Oregon, Johnson seized the opportunity for a fresh start when Wicks and Marshall convinced him to get involved in athletics. He went out for track and football in 1981, his senior year.

“I was able to see myself through these teachers’ and my coaches’ eyes. What they thought I could do in my future,” Johnson said. “I decided, I’m going to try. I’m going to see what happens if I believe that, and do what I can to achieve that.”

So he did. Buoyed by the boost from the educators supporting him, Johnson kept trying and trying, through a stint playing college football at Azusa Pacific University, through his psychology degree in 1986 and through his eventual master’s degree in special education nearly two decades later. 

He tried all the way to the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea, where he represented Team USA in the decathlon. And when his status as the presumed winner at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics was dashed by a stress fracture in his foot, Johnson tried anyway. He took home the bronze.

“You’re sitting at the Olympic games and you want to quit – and I’m remembering Butch Wicks and Clyde Marshall,” Johnson said. “They would tell me not to quit. ‘Get your butt up.’”

Johnson will speak at a gala on Friday, April 29 at Roth’s West Salem Event Center, said Vivian Ang, the literacy center’s founder and director. The fundraiser is the literacy center’s eighth such event.

The event runs from 6-8:30 p.m. Tickets are $50, and available online.

“Our goal is to raise money, but it also is to engage our donors with what’s going on with our students,” Ang said, adding that they aim to raise $40,000 this year.

Since opening its doors in 2009, volunteers at the literacy center have helped adults as old as 82 learn to read and write English. Their students have hailed from 57 countries, and together speak more than 30 languages, Ang said.

The center also helps students pass their GED exam in both English and Spanish, she added. Students can use the center to study for U.S. citizenship tests, prepare for Certified Nursing Assistant training and improve their computer skills.

Mid-Valley Literacy Center additionally offers a workplace languages program, where a tutor will work directly with employers in Marion, Polk, Yamhill, Clackamas, Washington, Linn and Lincoln counties to design a curriculum and teach English or Spanish classes to employees.

“There’s no real programs to help people that are falling through the cracks,” Ang said. “We don’t realize how much reading opens doors to everything. Education is such an important (tool for) all of our adults.”

Today, Johnson works as vice principal and athletics director at Regis St. Mary Catholic Schools, in addition to his work as a motivational speaker and author. He hopes to emulate the impact of educators like Wicks and Marshall for his own students, he said.

“For me, I ended up at the Olympic games, an Olympic medalist, as one of the top athletes in the world. It all started with a teacher and coach that allowed me to see myself,” Johnson said. “Hopefully, I’m the kind of person able to let them see themselves through my eyes.”

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