by Jim Riggs
February 23, 2008
Guess Who's Coming To Dinner
The void was a banquet chairman, which had been a two-man operation of Tom Prohaska and Gene Aversa for the 1989 induction dinner earlier that year. At one of the monthly board meetings at the Chautauqua Mall it was brought up that a new banquet chairman would be needed. No one spoke up, so Chip Johnson did.
"They needed someone to do the banquet and that's when I started doing it and kept on going," Johnson said this week. "I took over after that and never looked back."
And how long did Johnson think he would serve as the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame the Banquet chairman?
"Maybe for a couple years," he said on Tuesday, the day after the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame held its 18th straight induction dinner with Johnson in charge. It's not an easy job, so has Johnson ever thought about stepping down as the banquet chairman?
"I don't think I've ever said I'm not going to do it, but it has crossed my mind," said Johnson, who also did it while serving as president for four years.
The main job of the banquet chairman is to arrange everything for the affair such as the site, menu and numerous other items to make sure that serving dinner to more than 350 people goes smoothly. And then there is coordination the program which includes finding an emcee, but the biggest is landing a guest speaker every year. And that's the main chore.
In Johnson's early years, there was a definite Buffalo flavor as some guest speakers were Scott Radecic, Carlton Bailey, Bill Polian and John Gurtler from the Sabres. And those were arranged by making phone calls to teams' public relations offices.
But soon Johnson started reaching beyond Western New York and the guest speaker for the 1995 induction dinner was three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Johnny Rutherford.
"That was a great banquet," Johnson recalled. "That was the year the Damond girl (Kristina) won the soap box derby (in 1994) and I tried to tie that in with what the banquet was like. I tracked him down and ended up getting him."
And the trend with different speakers continued with the help of Jim Dagon of Hornell, who is a funeral director there. Johnson works for the Lind Funeral Home and they met at a business meeting and that's when Johnson learned Dagon had a side business of booking sports celebrities.
"He helped us out for several years," Johnson said, noting he helped in landing guest speakers such as Carmen Basilio, Sparky Lyle, Tommy John and Dennis Hull.
"One of the best years, too, was when we had Marcellus Wiley and Sam Gash," Johnson recalled about the 2000 event in which Dagon came up with a couple of Bills. "They were at dinner in Elmira and I got them to come up here the next day and that was the year Sam Gash made the Pro Bowl. You get lucky once in a while, I guess."
Johnson thought his luck had run out for 2004 induction dinner when he had no speaker with event only weeks away.
"I think we were into mid-January at one point," Johnson said. "That's when I call Jim Dagon in Hornell and said, "I don't have anybody yet." That might have been the year we got Dennis Hull."
And the former National Hockey League player, and brother of Bobby, was one of the most entertaining speakers ever.
Another highlight was when Johnson landed Rod Woodson of the Baltimore Ravens a month after they won the Super Bowl. That materialized because Woodson, a former Steeler, was involved with one of the Shults Auto Group dealerships in the Pittsburgh area.
"We found out Tim (Shults) and Rod were in cahoots together with car dealerships," Johnson said. "That's how that all worked out."
When lining up speakers, Johnson said, "What it comes down to is number one, if the date is free for everybody and number two, whether they just plain want to do it or not."
The date has become locked on the President's Day holiday because the schools are closed and the induction dinner becomes "the only game in town." And that means the numerous high school, college and other amateur athletes who have been honored for their accomplishments in the previous year are available to attend.
"That's the thing I look at as far as honoring the high school kids because there is so much going on with the schools," Johnson said. If the dinner was held on another Monday, "You'd never get them all there to be recognized."
But it's important to remember the main people to be recognized at the induction is the inductees, which is the reason the dinner is being held in the first place. That's why in recent years there has been only one guest speaker as compared to three or four in earlier years.
A few years ago it was noted that the guest speaker should take the podium last, after the inductees had been honored. At one dinner there was a high-profile guest speaker and after he spoke, the induction ceremonies were held. But while biographies of the inductees were being read, numerous attendees were leaving because all they came for was to hear the guest speaker.
"The whole board felt that the night should be dedicated to the inductees, so have them go first and the guest speakers follow them," Johnson said about changing the order of the program.
And which guest speakers are the easiest to work with?
"In some sports the athletes are more accessible than others,” Johnson said. “Hockey guys seem to be more accessible than any other professional sports."
And who are the least accessible"
"Probably football and baseball," he said.
So when does the process of landing a guest speaker for the February event begin?
"I start thinking about it in September," Johnson said. "You work on things during the day and then you go home and you work on things at home. It's 10 hours a week or something like that at the beginning."
And when Johnson finally lands a guest speaker, which is often a grueling task, he happily announces it to the board. But then his balloon can be quickly burst.
"That's tough," he said. "You work to get the best speaker you can get.