By Gene Adams ’53 Whitman Alumni Volunteer
WALLA WALLA, Wash. — Whitman College men’s basketball coach Eric Bridgeland stresses relationships and teamwork. He wants his players to follow the "servant leader" model that is found in successful business executives, community leaders, and often in church leaders.
His players use the model on the court (they play for their teammates) and in the community. Bridgeland finds time to be a community volunteer as do five of his equally busy players. To help teach the servant leader concept, Bridgeland has exposed his players to several guest speakers.
The most recent speaker (Nov. 1) was Dr. Eric Johnson (Whitman ’72), a Spokane anesthesiologist who drove six hours round trip to be with the players.
A Walla Walla native, Dr. Johnson moved from being an All-Northwest Conference quarterback on Whitman’s co-championship team and the University of Washington Medical School to a wife (Kim) and family and a medical practice in Spokane. He was successful and happy in every way. Dr. Johnson then set the leadership bar very, very high.
- In 1985 Dr. Johnson volunteered to go to Ethiopia with an organization called Healing the Children. He left his family and practice for three weeks to provide medical care for children. He and other doctors paid their own expenses, including airfare.
- From 1985 through 2000 Dr. Johnson made 10 such trips to Ethiopia and poor communities in five other countries in Africa, South America and Central America.
- Four days after the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001, Dr. Johnson acted on his ‘I have a duty to my country’ conviction and tried to enlist in the U.S. Air Force. He was 54. He was rejected as being too old, but after years of appealing that decision up the chain of command, President Bush waived the age restriction.
- In 2006 Lt. Col. Johnson, a proud member of a USAF unit based in Spokane, was ordered to Iraq. He was part of a medical team that evacuated critically wounded soldiers and marines from combat zones in Iraq to a hospital in Germany. The team’s mission was to keep patients alive by whatever means possible until they were safe. All flights took place at night to avoid ground-to-air missles.
- After 15 Iraq-to-Germany flights Lt. Col. Johnson was rotated home. In 2009, however, his team was sent to Afghanistan to make 10 more flights with the same life-saving goals. He is currently back in Spokane.
“Through athletics,” Dr. Johnson told Whitman’s basketball players in his recent presentation, “I learned to count on my teammates. In the Air Force I trusted my wingman. My Whitman degree has given me worlds of opportunity to make a difference. I just try to do my best.’
Coach Bridgeland calls Eric Johnson a true American Hero. “He is one of Whitman’s finest – ever.”
Several players on his basketball team agree, describing Lt. Col. Johnson as “amazing” and “unselfish” as well as “awesome” and “brave and driven.” One called him “a generous, gentle warrior.”