The Somerville News Weekly Special Person of the Week:Richard Johnstin

By William Tauro 

Meet this week’s “Special Person of the Week:Retired Somerville Resident Richard Johnstin Finds Purpose Playing


Many Americans struggle with navigating life after retirement. For Richard Johnstin, 66, of Somerville, who spent 10 years working as a senior planner for RCA Automated Systems Department and 18 years working at Somerville Community Schools After-School Program, retirement came too early. After a series of company layoffs and time away from his students, Johnstin was at a crossroads. For his second act, he found a renewed sense of passion and purpose on the playground working full-time as a Coach for Playworks New England. 


Known as “Coach Dick” to more than 400 elementary students at West Somerville Neighborhood School, Johnstin runs four recesses a day implementing Playworks games and activities, including basketball, four square, and more than 40 varieties of tag. Over the last two years, Coach Dick has become a staple at the school and a grandfather figure for many. He is credited with helping to transform the school’s culture – on the playground, in the classroom, and beyond.


“I’ve always said, given the choice of working with 25 adults or 25 kids, I’d pick the kids every time,” says Coach Dick. “You have to be willing to listen to these kids. Family dynamics have changed so much these days. In many cases, these kids lack consistent adult role models. The playground is where youth develop social emotional skills to get them through life. They learn to forge relationships; they learn to compromise, they learn to strategize. Don’t underestimate the power of a grandfather figure. And, you can’t be afraid to get in the game!”


On a daily basis, Coach Dick creates lesson plans, sets up equipment, and implements Playworks programming and receives monthly training, teaching physical skills and social and emotional lessons on the blacktop and in the hallways. He holds four recesses a day, two grades per recess, in 20 minute increments. He can be seen giving out high fives, ushering students to their classrooms, greeting students as they enter the cafeteria for lunch and even jumping into a game of Banana Tag or Super Star Basketball on the playground.


“I play a lot of freeze tag with the kids, which you can imagine is tiring as the adult seems to be a favorite target,” says Coach Dick. “Before Playworks came to this school, students didn’t know how to play during recess. They would stand in groups and fight. Now, they use Rock, Paper, Scissors to resolve conflicts, such as who gets to use what equipment first. They listen to each other. They include each other in games, regardless of race and gender.” 


For recesses with 1st and 2nd graders, Coach Dick enlists help from Playworks Junior Coaches, select 4th and 5th grade students who receive leadership training from the nonprofit, to run games and activities. He pulls from past professional experiences, life as a father of two and grandfather of one and his own recesses as a child, to give academic and life advice. He has a two-way relationship with his students. He serves as a grandfather figure to those who may not have one at home. In return, they teach him the power of play and help to keep him mentally sharp and physically in shape. 


Forty seven staff members, including Coach Dick, and nearly 1,500 volunteers help to facilitate Playworks programming and work one-on-one with youth to develop leadership skills and beautify playgrounds. Playworks New England is leading the regional recess revolution. Entering its 11th year, the nonprofit, which is part of a national organization, serves 50,000 students in more than 100 elementary schools across Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire. To date, the nonprofit has served 160,000 youth locally.


“Coach Dick is an incredible asset to the Playworks team,” says Jonathan Gay, Executive Director of Playworks New England. “With his playful personality and dedication to mentoring at the West Somerville Neighborhood School, Coach Dick helps energize education for all.”


To create more opportunities for coaches like Dick, Playworks is collaborating with the Generation to Generation, a new campaign powered by Encore, to utilize the skills and experience of those in midlife and beyond to help kids thrive.


Our hats are off to his true Somerville spirit!

We here at the Somerville News Weekly salute you for everything that you do to make Somerville a better place. 

For more information about Playworks New England or to become a Playworks Coach, visit:

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