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Coles Phinizy
January 05, 1959
As their Sportsman of 1958 the editors choose
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January 05, 1959

Rafer Johnson

As their Sportsman of 1958 the editors choose

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Even now, in winter, the broad campus of the University of California at Los Angeles retains the clean, fresh look of spring. Against the dusky green Santa Monica hills the Romanesque lines of university buildings bring to mind medieval Italy—a fleeting reminder of the past, soon lost among all the surer tokens of eternal youth. Under the eucalyptus along the main avenue there is a constant tide of scholars on motor scooters and athletes bound for the playing fields. The coeds of UCLA—brunettes, blondes and real blondes—encamp on the sunlit lawns, discussing John Stuart Mill, the junior prom, or the freshman mud brawl. On the second floor of the student union, where the tide of the present loses some of its force, UCLA harbors the mementoes of its short but fruitful athletic past. Scattered through this memorabilia, mixed in with the memories of All-Americas and Olympians, there are a dozen plaques and trophies paying tribute to the finest athlete who ever came that way: Rafer Lewis Johnson.

Ray Johnson is a gentle man and the greatest of the many athletic giants to come out of the valley of the San Joaquin. For close to a decade now he has been the favorite son of the 2,500 people in his valley home of Kingsburg. Last April, his 11,000 collegemates elected him president of the student body. Last July, in Moscow, in a hard decathlon match against his old Russian rival and friend, Vasiliy Kuznetsov, he became the athletic wonder of both the Western and Eastern worlds. For these reasons, and for others less tangible but no less important, of all the amateurs and pros who enriched the scene in 1958, Ray Johnson stands first as Sportsman of the Year.

The year was Johnson's, but not his on every count. For holding faith against the odds in October the barnacled old professional, Casey Stengel of the Yankees, was a hero equal to Johnson. One of the most decisive victories of 1958 was won by a little-known figure of sport, Olin Stephens, designer of the America's Cup defender, Columbia . More than a boat hull counted, surely, but Columbia's smashing victory at sea was virtually preordained on Stephens' drawing board.

It was the impact of the man himself, rather than his victory, that made Johnson the worthiest sportsman. Ray Johnson is a rare concentrate of some old Sunday school virtues: tolerance, humility and godliness, none of which can be said to be gaining too much ground in this go-get-'em age. Johnson's kind of tolerance is not the diluted brand that sells so cheaply around the world these days, good only among people who already think alike. His is the real thing—by Voltaire's definition, the capacity to be tolerant even of intolerance. His godliness is inconspicuous; he never wears it on his sleeve. For two track seasons at UCLA a recurring leg injury reduced Johnson athletically to a good team man. At the time he was elected president, there was little glamour to him. He had a reputation for all-round decency and for getting things done without a lot of caterwauling, and this counted heavily for him at the polls.

For Rafer Johnson, the coming summer offers even more challenge athletically than the rich year just past. He will defend his national decathlon title in late July and a month later, in Chicago, his Pan-American title. Before both these defenses, in a U.S.-Russian dual track meet in Philadelphia's Franklin Field, July 17, 18, he will again take on old rival Kuznetsov. Both Johnson and Kuznetsov have raised the decathlon standard now where no specialist, good in a few events, can ever reach it. At Franklin Field, the U.S., after contributing to the cast of characters for some years, will at last get a look at a great decathlon show.

The crowded hours of college life

Just now, the challenge of the coming year is scarcely in Johnson's mind. Until spring the implements of his sport gather dust. Johnson is thoroughly embroiled with the present. His average day now is consumed improving his C-plus average, playing basketball, and as student president juggling many, many matters great and small, hoping nothing of importance falls to the floor. He spends 20 hours a week in his office marked PRESIDENT, one floor above the showcases that already preserve him as part of UCLA's past.

Anyone caring to know how much of the world one good college man can reach should visit Johnson in his office. At the far end of the room, a file cabinet, stenographer's table and Johnson's desk stand before a bay of leaded-glass windows. On a typical day, as he enters, Johnson stacks his classbooks on a small table beside his office couch so that, if office business slackens, he might snatch some learning. On this particular day, Johnson has scarcely put his books down before both his secretaries are orbiting around him. Secretary Sharon Gornbein, a cheerful brunette, comes to rest at the typewriter with a half bushel of memorandums. Secretary Adrienne Hatcher, a real blonde, ticks off on her fingers unfinished business. First there is the U.S. State Department letter asking if Johnson can make another good-will tour. "Then, there's Arizona asking about the blood drive," Secretary Hatcher continues, "and a Mrs. Berler, or Boiler, wrote a letter. You know, another come-to-dinner-and-give-a-speech letter."

Johnson lifts a hand. "I just can't speak any more this semester," he pleads. "I've got to study."

Secretary Hatcher withdraws to advise Mrs. Berler (or Boiler) politely that if Johnson speaks any more, he may flunk. Johnson settles back of his desk and searches for the State Department letter in a folder of mail. The folder contains letters from the Youth for Christ of Muskegon, the Culver City Rotary, a Chicago YMCA, the Toluca Lake B'nai B'rith and a Toronto TV station, asking Johnson to speak. Dan Ferris, the kindly, pink-cheeked vigilante of U.S. amateurism, writes that Australia wants Johnson to compete there in March. Lois Satterburg of Yucaipa, California writes to say she has just realized that this famous Rafer Johnson is the 10-year-old she held long ago in the Kingsburg hospital after he tore open his foot climbing on the cannery conveyor. ( Johnson will never forget. Still, at times, as he pounds down a broad-jump runway, he can feel the cut of the conveyor belt.) Ove Strom of Stockholm, Sweden writes for advice and autographs. University President Clark Kerr requests Johnson's services on a committee. Art Lentz of the Olympic Committee hopes Johnson can find time to make a movie. Down in Tol�, Chiriqu�, Panama, a Miss Eleanor Larson, who describes herself as an old maid missionary and confesses that she fills teeth without a dental degree, has heard Johnson is contemplating the ministry or dentistry (actually, now he leans more to foreign relations). There are plenty of souls and teeth to fix down Panama way, Miss Larson pleads, but she warns, "You won't get rich."

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