Friday, January 20, 2012

Who Is Jack Johnson?

He has a race, an indoor meet, a scholarship fund named in his honor, but who was Jack Johnson? Why is this weekend's indoor track meet at the University of Minnesota named after him?

If you were a University of Minnesota athlete in the 30 years prior to 2006, that's probably an easy question to answer, but for the rest of us, it's not. Jack Johnson was a beloved person in the University athletic family. For three decades he worked as an equipment manager for the athletic department, starting off there as a student trainer and rising to the role of equipment manager for the women's teams at the University.

"He was a Mounds View high school guy," said Steve Plasencia, the men's track and cross country coach at the U. "Single, never married, the kids in the program here were his family. There's a great picture of Jack that I still see around the office. He's out on the cross country course, foot up on the oak tree(see photo)."

"He was a good friend of mine and my wife," said Garry Wilson, the women's cross country coach at the U. "Jack did everything he possibly could for the team."

That included, said Plasencia, action above and beyond the call of duty at events such as the 2000 NCAA Championship meet at Iowa State University in Ames. The temperatures were frigid with a strong wind that was in the runners' faces at the start of the race, said Plasencia. It was so bad that Plasencia had to take one of his runners into the shower room after the race and hold him up under the hot water until he thawed.

Near the end of the finish chutes Johnson was running around handing out parkas and hand warmers for the Gopher runners. For Jack it was just part of the job. It was the sort of selfless behavior that endeared him to the teams. "He didn't have any immediate family. The kids were his family," said Wilson. In his first year at the equipment job, he was asked if he wanted to go along with the Gopher football team to the Rose Bowl. Let somebody else go, Jack said, I'll go the next time, Wilson laughingly remembers the selfless gesture, noting that the Gophers have not returned to the Rose Bowl since then.

And Jack was an "adopted" member to the Wilson family as well. Wilson recalls one incident of many when the boat they were out in sprung a leak and sank.

Wilson's wife and Jack were on the boat as it was going down and Jack couldn't swim. Wilson got him into a life jacket and all three made it to shore, even though the boat did not survive. In September of 2005 when Jack was diagnosed with cancer, Wilson and his wife, brought Jack to their home. They took care of Jack as the illness progressed ultimately taking his life on February 15, 2006.

Wilson didn't stop there in taking care of his friend. While Jack was still alive a scholarship fund was set up in Jack's name at the University. Seven U of M athletes so far have benefited from that fund. It's partially funded through Jack's Run a cross country race named after Johnson. The funds from that race go to the scholarship, the Angel Foundation, and the Tesfa Foundation.

Then there is this weekend's meet. Becky Bohm, a former associate director of athletic communications at the University of Minnesota, says that Wilson has been particularly attentive to honoring individuals at the school, such as Jack or former U of M women's runner Rocky Racette, who was killed in a tragic car accident. Jack's Run, Rocky's Run are both things he championed that keep the memory alive of those who had an impact on the University programs.

Wilson even made sure that Jack got an M award, which meant a U of M letter jacket. Jack was particularly proud of that, said Bohm. In fact, she recalls, that Jack was buried wearing the jacket. Just the way Jack would have wanted it.

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