You Should Meet: The family that brought gymnastics to Hendricks

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Gary Johnson, shown with Sadie, one of three daughters, raises corn, soybeans, cattle, horses and gymnasts on the family farm in Hendricks, MN. (MPR Photo/Bob Collins)

Stop me if you’ve heard this before. A farm couple builds a sports complex in the belief that people will come. And they do. In Hendricks, MN., however, it’s not baseball and corn. It’s a farm shed and gymnastics that’s gotten people to sit up and take notice.

The town in western Minnesota — population 713 — didn’t have high school gymnastics a few years ago, partly because it didn’t have a high school. It shared school space with nearby Ivanhoe. The elementary-school-age kids went to school in Hendricks. The high school kids went to Ivanhoe, until that community decided it wanted schools for both, and pulled out of the arrangement.

Hendricks was left to start its own high school, only to get unnerved a year ago when a state representative filed legislation to dissolve Hendricks schools and force all the students to go to Ivanhoe. The legislation failed, but it shook the people’s confidence in the school’s future, especially with open enrollment. As many communities in Minnesota have learned, if you don’t have a school, you don’t have much of a future.

That’s when a couple with a little creativity, some gymnastics equipment, and a plan for a farm shed stepped in.

“We wanted to make the school unique and help market it,” Sherri Johnson told me this week. A veteran gymnastics coach, she had volunteered to coach the Hendricks girls — there’s no budget for gymnastics — but the school building wasn’t suitable for a gymnastics program. Their three daughters had been riding 40 minutes each way to the big city — Brookings, S.D. — for proper gym facilities.

Her husband, Gary, had planned to build a new “shed” to house the occasional combine and other equipment on their spread.

“I had some older gymnastics equipment sitting in the garage — some bars and a vault — and I just wanted a little corner (in the new building) for some space for the girls,” she said.

Instead, she got this.

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(MPR Photo/Bob Collins)

The only evidence that the building is on a farm are the two pallets of seed corn waiting for winter to flee. But, it’s what you don’t see here that is the story: You don’t see what it apparently did for the town.

The Johnsons hired local construction workers, electricians, and plumbers, and used local businesses as suppliers. It was, to an outsider at least, a statement to the community. “We just want the town to thrive and grow,” Gary said, acknowledging that it might’ve been cheaper to buy from the chains.

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The Barn Bash. (Photo courtesy of Steve Hemmingsen) 

When the building was ready in January, the Johnsons hosted the first Hendricks gymnastics meet, calling it the First Annual Barn Bash. Sherri Johnson’s team – four girls — invited the third-largest school in South Dakota — Sioux Falls Roosevelt — over for a little competition.

“When I told them that the meet would be in our barn, they said, ‘Oh, my word,'” Sherri said. But it was built with gymnasts — and combines — in mind, including the floor radiant heat for the benefit of the girls who perform in bare feet.

It was a hit with the other team and the rest of the town, and not just because the town’s mayor — Jay Nelson — led the pep squad with the classic sports-cheer instrument — the accordion.

Local construction workers cheered from the “VIP section,” some space above the bathrooms, easily accessed via a hydraulic scaffold and a ladder.

Hendricks didn’t have any medals to give out to the winners — gymnasts just throw them in a drawer anyway — but Gary Johnson, for reasons not fully explained, had purchased 1,000 anatomically correct hereford figurines which, it turns out, make swell gymnastic medals.

“It was so much fun,” Sherri said. “The girls from the other team came up and thanked us after.” So did others in the community.

“Against all odds, in a village looking to find its feet, our girls dominated,” Mayor Jay Nelson said. The squad is a fraction of the size of teams in the region — Pipestone, Marshall, and Luverne, for example.

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Hendricks High gymnast Hailey Teske with coach Sherri Johnson. Photo courtesy of Sherri Johnson via the Hendricks Pioneer.
 

Despite a disappointing showing in the sectionals, however, gymnast Hailey Teske advanced to the state gymnastics meet in the uneven-bars competition, becoming the first new Hendricks High student to compete at a state tournament.

“She wouldn’t have even been at the school if not for gymnastics,” Sherri Johnson said. “She’d be going to school in Brookings.”

When the team returned to Hendricks, they were met by a fire truck, making a parade through town on the way to the ice cream parlor.

“Hendricks, like most small towns, has been on defense for decades,” Mayor Nelson said. “It takes some keystone moment to get people to believe in the future and go on offense. This was our keystone moment. In five weeks, Sherri took kids, some of whom had never competed, and matched schools with one-hundred times our enrollment.”

The shed — or maybe it’s a gym — has become a community center. “Go Grizzlies” signs dot a few shops in the center of town.

“People want something to cheer for,” Gary Johnson said. “There’s a community pride that hasn’t been here.”

There’s also a big bill for building the place, but times have been good in farm country lately. “We’re keeping up with it,” he said.

“Hendricks is now beginning to rehabilitate a theater closed since 1972 and we’re in talks with a national cable TV station to have two shows filmed there. Our school is starting a drum line, rifle team and Nordic skiing team. The city is offering beachfront land for a resort, should an investor come forward.” Nelson points out. “And none of this happens without Gary and Sherri turning a machine shed into a gymnastics facility.”

“Gymnastics gives kids coordination , confidence, and strength,” Sherri said.

It can do wonders for a town, too.


Do you know of someone we all should meet? Who’s the most interesting person you know? Submit their name and tell me why. See more installments in this series.

Related: Want to learn more about the people of Hendricks? Watch this Eric Perkins segment from the community.

  • Kassie

    Awesome! Great story, Bob.

  • David Brauer

    Wonderful story, and wonderful people. Thank you.

  • BJ

    thanks.

  • Tim

    Cool to see such a small town thinking big. Kudos to the Hendricks community.

  • Shelley Hughes

    What a heart-warming story! I am so proud of Gary & Sherri and this little town!

  • http://www.cheaprecipeblog.com Haley

    What a heartwarming story! Proof that a small but passionate group of people can get things done. Thanks for sharing this beautiful story.

  • http://www.hendricksmn.com Fred Schmidt

    This is a great story, so glad you did it. Please feed us more.

  • V

    A nice tale told so nicely, too!

  • Becky Spurbeck

    This is an amazing story. Thanks for sharing. Amazing what an open and committed mind can achieve.

  • Jessica

    Great article! The gymnastics was a blessing for our community! The community support was amazing. The Hendricks gymnasts were also on the basketball team. They did double practices everyday there wasn’t a game/meet. The day of the Barn Bash, they played a basketball game then headed straight to the meet. Not only is our community committed, so are our kids! Thanks for sharing our story!

  • Bob Collins

    Just a quick reminder about News Cut’s (and MPR’s) Terms of Service. You are required to provide a real name and real e-mail address (which is not shown). If you only want to provide a first name, that’s fine. But the e-mail address provided has to be legit. I’ve removed a couple of comments that did not provide this.

    We don’t do anonymous postings. Keeps the conversation civil that way.

  • Jim

    Bob,

    What a great story and a real positive for the Johnson’s and Hendricks. Shows what rural communities can do whe they work TOGETHER.

  • Laura

    Thanks for reporting on the small towns! They are really neat and fun to live in. So many options for the students to be active in.

  • Lisa Schmidt

    Great story! Hendricks is a wonderful community…Gary and Sherri are great people who give 100% to the community and school! GO GRIZZLIES! GO BIG GREEN!

  • Bert Reed

    Quality stories about quality folks like this just make my day. Thanks.

  • Angie Schumacher

    We are so proud and blessed to be part of such a great family who gives their all to our school and community. What an amazing story with more great things to come!

    Go Get ‘Em, Grizzlies!

  • Joni

    Great story, the community support of this town is amazing! Proud to call Hendricks my home!!

  • Shirley

    What a great story! Hard work, determination, and doing what is best for the community and the kids takes a special kind of people. You should all be proud!

  • Violet N

    Last fall I heard the comment from one of the Hendricks Public School teachers that they had never taught at a school with such great community support. Our school has taken great strides these past couple years and I look forward with pride, at future accomplishments of this great school. Thank you Gary and Sherri for bringing us a gymnastics program. This is a big leap forward.

  • Elaine

    I am so proud to have grown up in this “little town by the lake”!!

  • Norris and Barb

    GREAT JOB, Sherri and Gary!! Thanks for bringing so much to our little town by the lake!!! You are both amazing!!!

  • http://. Shirley

    The Hendricks community is proud of all of Gary and Sherri;s contributions to the community. What a great opportunity for the childlren of Hendricks. But this is not the first or only example of their generosity. Gary has been a devoted school board member and been volunteering his time, skills and materials to the community and school for years.

    We salute you both!

    Larry and Shirley

  • mavis H.

    Thanks to Gary and Sherri, what a feat they have accomplished, thinking not only of themselves, but others,,,,,,,,,,Must run in the Johnson tradition, I think of Irene and her cafe, when we would come to this little town from our home in Bloomington, head to Irene’s cafe, eat the good food, go to pay, her comment to us was, : YOUR MONEY ISN’T ANY GOOD UP HERE’ Great memories of kindness………….

  • David Lerseth

    Great story for a great little town by the lake!

    I grew up in Hendricks and rememver the “can do” attitude from earlier years. This attitude has always been around: development of the Hendricks Medical facility that stayed alive during the depression because of the people in the community, the Lake Hendricks park, etc. But again in 2012-2-13 the Johnson have picked up that can do spirit and brought pride and the “can do” spirit back to Hendricks. I aplaud you as a former citizen for what you are doing. Also, how many towns in Minnesota have a mayor who plays the accordian at athletic events? Way to go Jay!!!

  • Lois Kallevig Courtright

    Hendricks–the little town that gave LOVE a try! : )

    Yaaaaaaaay!!!

    The LORD bless you all!!!!

  • Lee

    Great story….keep the positives rolling. We may be small, but we are mighty!

  • Jay Nelson

    Bob –

    It was great to meet you, and we were honored to have you drop by Hendricks. Please… enjoy the anatomically correct bull Gary sent home with you. You were — for whatever reason — real excited to receive this which will remain our little secret.

  • Dean Maddison

    Great and true story, This is a town with a great spirit and always looking to improve and inspire its citizens. love my new home town

  • Carol Mattson

    Most of us who grew up in Hendricks, regardless of how much time and distance now separate us, still call our little town by the lake home, and one component of that loyalty is because of people like Gary and Sherri. Some small towns seem to wither and die, but with their willingness to share and to provide the community with this place to rally around, they are one reason this won’t happen to Hendricks.

    (and I’m doubly proud because I’m Gary’s second cousin, another one of the Johnson line.)

  • Trey

    So where was this support when i was in school? Why could the same people that now crowd the gyms not drive the 12 miles to watch a few of their own, home grown boys, take a beating on the football field. I remember one Friday night when we had a home game, and a School Board member took a new teacher out drinking at the bar, rather than support the kids. Hendricks is a great town, with lots of awesome things. But once again i ask where was the support when the kids of Licoln HI ( hendricks ivanhoe) needed it the most. I believe it was hiding behind grudges of the past, that us kids at the time had to deal with.

  • JERRY

    Moved to Hendricks in December,2012. Lots of good and exciting events have happen from then until now in this little town by the lake. Thanks for the great story, Bob!

  • Tim

    I’ve been best friends with Gary since as far back as I can remember. If you know Gary, and certainly if you knew his dad Glen, then you’ve known some of the most giving and selfless people that have ever lived! I’ve lived in CA for 20 years now, but still call Hendricks ‘home’! It is definitely a unique place and people like Gary and Sherri and their families are reasons why.

  • Lynn (Lindy) Schultz

    What a treat to read about positive things happening in my ‘home’ town.

    Have not been back since my Mom (Clara) and Dad (Wally) passed, but could not be happier to see that things are happening.

  • mark

    Have you tried to get a meet with Ortonville-CGB? Besides Hendricks I would guess they are about the smallest school in MN with a gymnastics program, and they don’t usually have that many meets and most of them are with SD teams. And if you are co-op with RTR your probably similar in enrollment anyway as both those towns play 9 man football so they can’t be real large.