Ray Johnson has been a Learn to Skate instructor since the ice skating program began six years ago.
However, Johnson has been involved in teaching ice skating and teaching hockey skills since the 1980s.
A native of Greenwood, Johnson and his wife, Diane, and their three children moved to Tomah in 1982 after his job at Northwest Telephone Company, now CenturyLink, was transferred to Tomah.
Johnson, a self-taught skater, first got involved in teaching ice skating when his son wanted to play hockey, “so I helped out doing some things, the kids pushed me around with (hockey) sticks, ... and then I went into coaching.”
Throughout his time teaching and coaching, Johnson said he learned most of his skating skills from Tomah Youth Hockey and by looking at books and attending camps.
Johnson coached from when his son played hockey at the Mite level and followed him up through to graduation. He also spent two decades as a goalie coach and a hockey referee.
“I kind of got out of things when the kids moved out and had grandkids,” he said. “Then I had two granddaughters who were in figure skating − one still is a figure skater −and I have a grandson on the co-op ice team. He’s from Sparta and is a sophomore now.”
Despite his absence from teaching and coaching, when Johnson was asked to teach in the Learn to Skate program, he said yes.
“One of my daughters was a board member then, and she said ... they could use some help and wanted to know if I wanted to do that,” he said. “So I went ahead and that was that.”
Lynn Martalock, 7 River’s Figure Skating coach and a Learn to Skate coach, said it’s “amazing” what Johnson does. Martalock has known Johnson for years. Three of her children played hockey and her oldest was only a few years behind Johnson’s son.
“He’s been my right hand through all of this,” she said. “It’s kind of cool, amazing and for someone his age.”
Tomah’s Learn to Skate program began after U.S. Figure Skating, USA Hockey and U.S. Speed Skating combined to make one Learn to Skate program, Martalock said.
“It doesn’t matter at the early stages what you want to do,” she said. “Rather than all three having their own (program), they combined and sat down and rewrote the curriculum ... It’s been a big boost, and we were lucky enough to convince the hockey board here to do it, our number have exploded.”
Learn to Skate runs from October to May.
Johnson said he’s glad to be part of Learn to Skate. He said he has “always enjoyed skating,” and likes teaching children because he didn’t have opportunities like Learn to Skate when he was young.
The first thing taught in Learn to Skate is how to get back up after a fall, Johnson said. From there Johnson said instructors teach some of the main skills such as forward skating, backward skating, stopping and balance.
“You can’t figure skate and you can’t play hockey unless you can do both,” he said. “Figure skaters probably spend half the time on the ice backwards, and in hockey it’s pretty close to that too because you change (direction) real fast.”
Learn to Skate isn’t just for children, Johnson said. Anyone of any age is welcome.
“We have quite a few people come through here that are military, associated with the military and have never been around a place where the kids could skate,” he said. “So we’ve had adults, parents come to learn to skate with the kids. They enjoy it, it’s something different.”
Johnson himself is military veteran. He served in the Army from 1964-66 as a communications specialist doing radio repair and maintenance in a military police unit. His service included duty in Vietnam.
“I was drafted, but I actually volunteered for the draft. I put my name up to be at the front of the list so I could go in a little earlier, and then I could go back to school afterwards,” he said. “I had been in (college) for a year and I hadn’t grown up. I did after I came back. It made a lot of difference.”
With Veterans Day coming on Nov. 11, Johnson said he’s glad to have served.
“Memorial Day is more for those that gave their lives, but Veterans Day is to honor and recognize all veterans. It doesn’t make any difference if you’re in the National Guard or if you spent 30 years in the military, you’re still recognized,” he said. “It’s a salute to veterans and it was an honor to serve, I’m proud of it.”
Being in Vietnam was an eye-opener, Johnson said, but he doesn’t “regret at all” going.
“I spent a lot of time in the coastal area ... I and the mechanics would go around every week and we’d hit all these different units, the small detachments and maintain the vehicles and radios, we traveled a lot of the side roads,” he said. “I didn’t have to go out in the jungles and the bus, but we had our incidents around us, everybody was scare the first time a shot was in your area — tour perspective on life changes real quick.”
Besides his time in Vietnam, Johnson said one thing he remembers is the protesters. Protests were happening even before he left, but he avoided the most of it.
When Johnson was heading to Vietnam, one of his brothers was coming home from Korea. They were in the same port, but because of the protests they weren’t allowed to find each other.
Johnson said that didn’t sit well with him.
“I supported our troops in Vietnam, that didn’t mean that I supported the war, but I supported the soldiers, and that’s the same way now,” he said. “The protesters, the one thing I’ve heard is they couldn’t separate the war from the warrior. If you think about that, they took it out on soldiers and really that was their way of protesting the political process.”