The wonderful world of Disney has had an impact in Taylor.
In 1941, Taylor High School’s head football coach, T.H. Johnson, received an autographed Donald Duck cartoon from celebrity Walt Disney. The inscription read, “To the Taylor High School Ducks. Greetings. Walt Disney.”Taylor’s classic Duck mascot, Drallam, bears a strong resemblance to this autographed Duck from Disney.
When Johnson became Taylor ISD’s superintendent in 1947, he displayed the Disney Duck on a filing cabinet in his office. At that time, the superintendent’s office was located in the main office of the high school. Two secretaries occupied the center area, with Johnson’s office to the left and the principal’s office to the right. Janell Rohlack joined the office staff in 1950 as secretary to the principal.
“Our office was totally lined around the top of the room with Mr. Johnson’s winning football teams,” said Rohlack. “It was solid, like 8-by-10s, all the way around that room. And on his filing cabinet was the original Duck, signed by Walt Disney. It was a really cool picture. I have no idea when he got it, but that was part of his office.”
After Johnson’s death in 2000, his daughter, Dorothy Elliott, donated the treasured autograph to the Taylor High School Ex-Students Association when Naomi Pasemann was coordinator for the group. The original is safely locked away, and copies are proudly displayed all around the district. The association’s current coordinator, Pat Helbert, recently saw the original autograph for the first time.
“It’s amazing that I got to put my hands on it, and I actually got to see the real one,“ said Helbert. “There’s tons of them floating around, but you can tell this is the real one. And for Walt Disney to take a little bit of his time when he was just really getting started, to show us, the Taylor Ducks, that he was going to design us a Duck, and here it is from Walt Disney himself.”
Johnson never said much about how he came to receive the autograph, and the story of how Walt Disney came to find out about the local championship team has remained a mystery through the years.
During his career and even in retirement, Johnson produced numerous books on the history of Taylor football and the Taylor schools. Written on a typewriter and copied on a mimeograph machine, Johnson enjoyed sharing these handmade books with former students. The Disney Duck decorated the cover of almost every title, and in several of these books, he mentions having received the Disney cartoon in 1941. But that appears to be the only detail he documented about the now famous autograph.
Former students and colleagues have speculated that either Coach Johnson or someone on the team may have written to Disney, asking for the autograph. But research for a video documentary currently in production about the legendary Taylor coach has revealed that news of the winning Taylor Ducks had spread far beyond our city limits at the time.
Evidence that Taylor football began gaining some national attention during the 1930s was found in an article published in a 1951 issue of the Cotton Boll, Taylor High School’s newspaper. The article reported that at the Taylor-Killeen game that year, a journalist from the Killeen newspaper told Taylor’s student reporters that T.H. Johnson had appeared in Bob Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” column because the Ducks remained undefeated from 1930 to 1935. The journalist also called Johnson one of the greatest high school coaches he had ever seen.
In another issue of the Cotton Boll, also from 1951, a brief article entitled, “History Discovered; Picture Uncovered,” finally solved the mystery of the Disney Duck. It seems that a Cotton Boll staff member saw the framed autograph on the filing cabinet in Johnson’s office and asked about its origin.
The former coach told the young reporter that Perry Winkly, a sports writer with the San Antonio Evening News, had written to Walt Disney, telling him about the Taylor Ducks and suggested that he honor the local team with a drawing of his cartoon character, Donald Duck. Soon after that, Johnson received a picture of “Donald” with the inscription by Disney.
T.H. Johnson came to Taylor in 1926 as assistant coach to C.R. Drake. His first year in Taylor was the Ducks’ best football season to date, and Johnson began a career in Taylor that would last the next 40 years. During that time he served as coach, teacher and superintendent. In 1983, T.H. Johnson Elementary School opened in his honor.
During Johnson’s years as head coach, the Ducks claimed seven district titles, six regional titles, four unbeaten seasons and a 30-game winning streak. In 1986, Johnson was inducted into the Texas High School Coaches Association Hall of Honor.
“Win is Our Slogan,” a video documentary about T.H. Johnson’s life and career, is scheduled to premiere on the Taylor ISD YouTube channel in January 2021.