After One Day at the Top, It's Down to Riding in No. 9

Times Staff Writer

Fred Johnson's climb to glory lasted 27 years, and glory lasted one day.

On that day Johnson wore a white suit and rode in a white car that bore license plate No. 1. People cheered as he went by. He had the best seat at the Rose Bowl game. He was Pasadena's biggest big shot.

Johnson was president of the Tournament of Roses Assn., and this was his New Year's Day and his parade.

When Johnson woke up the next morning, the 1986 Tournament of Roses was over and so was his job. In about two weeks somebody else was president and Johnson was on a couple of committees. When the new white Oldsmobiles arrive next fall for the 1987 Tournament of Roses officials, Johnson's license plate number will be 9.

"That's the world's fastest trip from 1 to 9," said the genial has-been, who claims that even when he was at the peak of tournament officialdom, deep down he remembered what real life was like.

Top tournament officials work up through the chairs, so to speak. They begin, as all 800 association members do, by volunteering to work on Pasadena's famous celebration that is in its 97th year.

Eventually--usually after about 15 years working in a variety of jobs and heading at least one of the 29 committees--they are chosen to be one of the association's 23 directors.

The key step to the presidency is appointment to the nine-member executive committee, which is made up of the president, the past president and seven people who will become president in the order they were named to the committee. License plates 1 through 8 on their white cars indicate their order of succession, and 9 is reserved for the immediate past president.

"As president, you have three major decisions--your parade's theme, who will be your grand marshal and whether to wear a white suit or a red jacket," Johnson said.

He chose "A Celebration of Laughter," columnist Erma Bombeck and a white suit like all the 800 association members wear on New Year's Day, spurning the red jacket that indicates the presidency.

"Since the reason I was there was through the efforts and good graces of 800 people, I wanted to be one of them," Johnson said. "Besides, I figured I could get one more ride out of that suit."

After next New Year's Day, Johnson no longer will have an official car nor will he serve on the executive committee.

"The second year after you're president, you no longer have a license plate or a car to which to attach it," Johnson said.

"You no longer have a vote on the executive committee, because you are no longer on it. You are an honorary lifetime director and invited to all the social events, but by and large you're not a working member of the organization."

Far from depressed at this sudden fall from power, Johnson said that he looks forward to serving on the post-parade committee where he can greet the public when the floats are displayed in Victory Park after the parade.

He and the 1985 tournament chairman, Jim Boyle, are still on the football committee, a position that continues two years after the presidency.

"It's not an immediate letdown," said Boyle, who is to experiencing his first year without an official car. "Next year I'll know what it's like to be nothing."

Johnson recalls how it all began for him.

It was 1959, and he had his first white suit for his first New Year's Day as an association member. Dressing in the dark, cold early morning hours, he put on red skiing long johns to man a rescue station on on Colorado Boulevard.

In the dawn's early light, the red showed through to reveal "that I had legs the color of cream of tomato soup," he said.

The white suits are worn by association members only on New Year's Day and a few special occasions. Johnson said he's had two in 27 years.

"I got a new one 8 or 10 years ago, when my kids were kidding me about the first one that had four pleats down the front. We had swung from zoot suit to Brooks Brothers in that time. Besides, it was turning yellow. We frown on cream color."

Johnson and Boyle said the presidency is not the hardest job they held in the association.

"On the executive committee everyone works at accelerated speed," Johnson said. "The most nervous time is the vice presidency, because you're in charge of the weather. You get told that so many times that by mid-December, you always think you can do something about it.

"I made it gorgeous for Jim Boyle, and Fred Soldwedel made it gorgeous for me."

Soldwedel, a Pasadena attorney, is president of the 1987 Tournament of Roses.

At the January meeting when Soldwedel assumed his top post, Gary K. Hayward, a Pasadena businessman, was named to the executive committee. His license plate will be No. 8 this year.

He will be in charge of the weather for 1994 and he will be president of the 1995 tournament, when he will have No. 1 on his car. Then he will have license No. 9, and then. . . .

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