Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Thu, 29 Jan 2009 17:11:05 -0500

Dave Gave


[Photo of Dave "Roadkill" Johnson, taken at Dick Beardsley's marathon camp in Minnesota last fall by Michael Lebowitz.]

Dave Johnson picked up the nickname "Roadkill" early in his career with the U.S. Forest Service, where he worked as a wildlife specialist. One of his tasks was postmortem exams of highway casualties within the forests.

To ease confusion in an office with two David Johnsons, one became Roadkill. He kept the name, long after the other Dave moved on.

RK Dave, as I always called him, became a lasting friend more than 20 years ago when he invited me to the Walker North Country Marathon on northern Minnesota. He had founded this race, setting a pattern of bringing events to unlikely places. This one settled into a town of 1100 within the Chippewa National Forest and succeeds there to this day.

The next assignment took RK Dave and his family to the Tongass Forest on Prince of Wales Island, Alaska. You couldn't find a spot much more remote for a marathon than the town of Craig, population 1200. To reach it from the Lower 48, you first must fly to Ketchikan and then catch a ferry or a single-engine float plane to the island.

When RK Dave first told me, "I want to start a marathon here," I stopped just short of saying: Yeah, right. Do you think runners will travel here?

Doubters didn't deter him. In 2002, I was one of the travelers to the Prince of Wales Marathon.

About 40 runners came to Craig, and RK Dave ran this marathon himself. He admittedly hadn't trained enough for it, but he showed the same confidence that he would finish this race as he'd demonstrated in starting it as an organizer. He finished.

RK Dave invited me back for the next year, when megamarathoner Bob Dolphin and his wife Lenore were the special guests. Each year thereafter the POW race flew in a speaker from the Lower 48 --including Dick Beardsley and Priscilla Welch. I'm sure that RK Dave picked up much of the cost himself, since sponsorship is scarce on the island.

We seldom saw each other but connected often by phone and e-mail. By now he had taken to calling me "Coach," as in his coach. Never have I had less success getting a runner to follow a program.

Several years ago he downplayed a big life-event, his non-disabling stroke. He said nothing to me about its after-effects unless asked.

When he wasn't talking about ideas to "make Prince of Wales bigger and better," he was promising to "get more serious about my own running again." He never quite kept that promise. He was too busy giving to other runners to give himself more training.

He ran the last two Marine Corps Marathons, still undertrained, as a way of honoring his father. Now in his mid-80s, the elder Johnson had served in the World War II Marines, and at the DC race he was greeted as a returning hero.

RK Dave arranged a family reunion at the 2008 race. Both of his and wife Pauline's sons and their wives are long-distance runners.

In 2007 we met at Dick Beardsley's marathon camp in Minnesota. When RK Dave heard about Dick's other camp venture, in Iowa for high school runners, he said, "We need to do that in Craig." We knew better by now than to say, or think: Yeah, right.

He pulled off such a camp in grand style last summer, drawing about 50 kids to his hometown (some traveling as long as 18 hours by ferry) He planned to make it "bigger and better" this year -- also longer, with two extra says. Runners from the Iowa camp even plotted a trip to Alaska.

This won't happen now because the one man who could have given this gift to the kids is gone. In January, I heard from camp coordinator Jan Seeley of Marathon & Beyond, "Dave passed away this morning." He was only 59.

This news hit me hard, and left me searching for the few visible mementos of him. One was his final e-mail, sent within his last two weeks.

He started by reporting, "Our younger son and daughter-in-law let us know they are expecting, after seven years of marriage and being told that neither could have children. What do doctors know?"

His own doctors might have known more about him than he was willing to tell, or wanted to admit to himself. I later learned that his health had slipped rapidly in recent weeks.

The last e-mail to me ended with "I've taken a little time off from running but starting again with the new year. Now I have to start planning for running camp."

My reply that day said too little. I thought we'd talk again soon, but you can never count on that. Now I'm left only with the memories of this good friend, of mine and of the sport wherever he had lived.

I'm also left with photo he gave for safekeeping. In it I'm acting as the starter of his POW Marathon. RK Dave is standing in the background, beaming like a proud father. I'll always remember that look.

He gave me that photo at our last Beardsley camp. With it came a handwritten note that read:

"This photo is one of my most prized possessions. I'm entrusting you to keep it for me until I finish my next Boston Marathon. Then and only then do you have to give it back."

I can't do that now. All I can do is give you the story of this giver.
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