Court is Adjourned; Coach Johnson Departs After 20 Years With SJP Mock Trial

By Robert Woltjen ’22

In a room tucked just inside the principal’s office for the past six years, Thomas Johnson, Esq. P ’01 has brought new meaning to the term “underpaid.” For the sum of $1 a year, Johnson has been the Prep’s in-house legal counsel and Mock Trial Coach, in addition to a trusted mentor for hundreds of students.

Yet, despite his accomplishments here, the Prep is just one chapter in his incredible story. It began in Ohio where, in 1972, Johnson graduated from Ohio State University. From there, it was on to Georgetown Law School but his path was not linear from there; in the middle of law school Johnson joined the Peace Corps and would spend his time in Togo, West Africa teaching classes at a boys school with his first coaching experience. For the two years he was there, he coached the basketball team, leading them to a second place finish in the national championships.

Upon his return, he graduated from Georgetown Law and began work at a large firm in Philadelphia but wasn’t happy. At the time, Philadelphia District Attorney Ed Rendell went around to the major firms in the city to recruit young lawyers to be prosecuting attorneys. Johnson was one of those recruited, and spent five years in the DA’s office prosecuting crimes, particularly sex crimes. He loved his work there, but not the pay, and eventually was hired back into private practice.

There, he worked on asbestos litigation on behalf of shipyard and refinery workers. After five years of that, he started his own firm, Johnson and Childs, where he worked once again on sexual assault cases, mostly for plaintiffs, but also a few on behalf of defendants, if they could convince him of their innocence. During this time, he also performed some of his most interesting work, suing tobacco companies. He was an influential player in the fight against smoking in the United States, traveling around the country to fight, and beat, major manufacturers. After twenty years, his partner, Dan Childs, retired to Vermont, and the firm came to an end.

But Johnson’s legal career was far from over. He was hired then by the Department of Justice as a trial attorney for civil suits. He represented the federal government in medical malpractice, employment discrimination, and health care fraud cases for eight years, starting every case by announcing, “Your Honor, the United States is present.” He got to represent President Obama five times, but that “doesn’t mean he returned my phone calls.”

Once he retired from the Department of Justice, Johnson came to “work” at the Prep in 1999. At the time, his son Tim was a Prep student and captain of the JV soccer team. A group of students was trying to start a Mock Trial team, and needed a mentor. They asked History Teacher Mr. Bill Conners ’80 for help, and soon after he spied Johnson in his standard attire of suspenders and a tie at a soccer game and struck up a conversation with him. When he found out Johnson was an attorney, Conners “could see that this could be a perfect match – a generous, accomplished lawyer to lead our small band of hungry, rookie litigators,” and asked Johnson to coach the team. Thus began, as Conners put it, “a 24-year run of vigorous competition and, most importantly, scholarly mentorship in the Jesuit tradition from a good and honorable man.”

During his time as Coach of the Mock Trial team, the Prep has claimed five city championships and two appearances in the state championship match, including in 2022, his final season. His first champions beat Overbrook High in 2002, after losing to them the year prior. The Prep’s camaraderie with Overbrook was a point of pride for Johnson. He recalled a party held for the teams after the state tournament one year where Prep lawyers and witnesses danced the night away with their counterparts from Overbrook. As other coaches from across the state came up to ask what exactly was going on, the Prep guys and Overbrook girls had the time of their lives, and Coach Johnson told the other coaches that it was just, “a bunch of kids from Philly having fun.” Overbrook, being an inter-city school in a rougher neighborhood, was not well-respected at the time among other teams, but in a letter to Coach Johnson, the coach of Overbrook told him that, “that night, your young men made my young women feel like colleagues.”

But it was not always fun and games. When one senior thought he knew best what to do to win a mock trial match, Coach Johnson had to put his foot down and tell him that the only thing this brilliant idea was good for was losing the match. When the senior explained that it was merely, “a professional disagreement,” Johnson explained that was not possible, because, “there’s only one professional here.”

Coach Johnson describes being “deeply moved” by the devotion to prayer he’s witnessed throughout his time here. The Prep Mock Trial team has made it a tradition to pray before every match. During one state tournament match, the team refused to go on without praying, and Coach Johnson had to petition the judge to hold off the trial while they prayed together. One time, a former student, a South Philly kid who called bingo at his parish on the weekends, even called Coach Johnson before his first match, as his college team did not pray.

But more important than any titles he’s brought to 17th and Girard or even the academic or legal help he’s provided to the school and occasionally its students, is the lives he has touched through his time here.

In the classroom and in the lunchroom, in classroom and in that tucked-away office, Coach Johnson has left an impact taller than his own stature here at the Prep. His legacy will live on in both the team he started and in every young man’s life he’s helped shape.

“Coach Johnson is one of the coolest adults at the Prep, and that’s truly saying a lot. His history is simply unbelievable, and it leads to so many stories that I never got tired of hearing. As a coach, Mr. Johnson was always one step ahead of us, knowing exactly what changes to make to propel us to so many great victories this season. His sage presence will be sorely missed on the Mock Trial team and in the greater Prep community, but, as captain next year, I won’t forget to ask myself, “What would Mr. Johnson do?,” as we battle hearsay arguments and draft those killer closings. I wish him a very well deserved retirement after doing so much for us and for this great school.”

Dan Law ’23

“Coach Johnson brought the energy for four years, giving all he had to make me do my best. I can remember sitting in the conference room freshman year with coach patiently explaining the basics, and I feel like I blinked and he had us competing in the state championship four years later. For two decades, he’s told stories, made memories, and inspired hundreds of students through his program. Without Coach Johnson, I would never have been able to explore my interest in the law. Because we have him, hundreds of past students and thousands of future students have had and will now have the resources to chase their dreams. From the early morning matches at Penn to the midnight phone calls about character evidence, it’s been real. I can’t thank him enough.”

Nolan Reddy ’22, Co-Captain

“Whether he was singing our praises or his own, Coach has never been at a loss for words to put the room in a good mood.”

Frank Amuso ’22, Co-Captain 

“This great man inspired us to be both to be the trickiest schemers in the field and the best gentlemen in the room.”

Caleb Silvergleid ’21, Former Captain

This article is reprinted from the May 24 issue of The Hawkeye Student Newspaper with the permission of the paper and the author.