Essential Cailfornia: An L.A. Olympic hero

Rafer Johnson holding the Olympic torch in 1984
Rafer Johnson holds the Olympic torch after lighting the flame at the opening ceremonies for the 1984 Olympic Games at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
(Steve Powell / Getty Images)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Thursday, Dec. 3, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

Rafer Johnson — an Olympic gold medalist who played a Zelig-like role in 20th century L.A. history and was considered for a time to be the greatest athlete in the world — died Wednesday at his home in Sherman Oaks.

Johnson was best known as a decathlete, with his international profile burnished by his role in the 1960 Rome Summer Olympics, where he won the gold medal in the final competition of his career. He had shattered both athletic records and racial barriers in the lead-up to that decathlon, besting the previous world record at the Olympic trials and carrying the U.S. flag in that year’s Olympic opening ceremonies, making him the first Black American to do so.

As Scott Wilson writes in his Times obituary, Johnson was a man “whose legacy was interwoven with Los Angeles’ history, beginning with his performances as a world-class athlete at UCLA and punctuated by the night in 1968 when he helped disarm Robert F. Kennedy’s assassin at the Ambassador Hotel.”


[Read the story: “Olympic gold medalist Rafer Johnson, who helped bring Summer Games to L.A., dies at 86” in the Los Angeles Times]

Born in Texas and raised by farmworker parents in the San Joaquin Valley, Johnson came to Los Angeles in the 1950s to attend UCLA. He won his first Olympic medal while still in college, but Johnson’s university pursuits were far from limited to track and field — he also played basketball under legendary Bruin coach John Wooden and served as student body president.

After the 1960 Games, Johnson dabbled in Hollywood (he’d previously turned down a top role in “Spartacus” to maintain his amateur athletic eligibility) and became close with Kennedy. He campaigned actively for Kennedy during his 1968 presidential bid and was among those who rushed at Sirhan Sirhan after the gunman shot Kennedy. In the frantic aftermath of the shooting, Johnson instinctively put the gun in his pocket after grabbing it from the assassin and didn’t realize it was there until he returned home that evening.

As the athlete struggled through his grief and trauma in the aftermath of the shooting, Kennedy’s sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver asked Johnson to lend his support to the fledgling Special Olympics.

Johnson co-founded the California Special Olympics the next year and remained involved with the cause for the rest of his life.

He also played an integral role in bringing the 1984 Summer Olympics to Los Angeles and lit the Olympic flame during the opening ceremonies that year.


[See also: “The 1984 Olympics had Rafer Johnson to light the way” in the Los Angeles Times]

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

Coronavirus hospitalizations surge to unprecedented heights as California considers drastic steps: The number of Californians hospitalized with the coronavirus rose to a record high for a fourth straight day — rising above 8,500 in data released Wednesday amid continued concerns that a sustained increase in patients will swamp the state’s healthcare system. Though the 8,517 hospitalizations are unprecedented, officials caution that the figure will not represent the ceiling of the latest COVID-19 surge, as it largely excludes anyone who was only recently infected, including over the Thanksgiving weekend. Los Angeles Times

Amid the COVID-19 surge, L.A. parents must decide: When schools reopen, will they send their kids? A school district survey asks parents in L.A. to look ahead to the near but indefinite future, when campuses could reopen for in-person classes, even as health officials project dark weeks ahead. Los Angeles Times

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The city of Los Angeles issued a modified stay-at-home order Wednesday night that mirrors L.A. County rules that went into effect Monday. Angelenos have already been subject to the county order for the past three days, so the city order won’t change anything. (The wording of the new city order unfortunately sparked widespread confusion online Wednesday night because it began by saying “all persons living within the City of Los Angeles are hereby ordered to remain in their homes” before going on to clarify, over the course of 12 dense pages, that Angelenos can also still get their nails done, attend an outdoor workout class and go to the mall, among a great many other exemptions. Parking regulations will also still be enforced.) Los Angeles Times


LeBron James has agreed to a two-year contract extension with the Lakers, keeping him with the team through the 2022-23 season. Los Angeles Times

Lakers star LeBron James smiles during a game.
Lebron James, who turns 36 at the end of December, is coming off his fourth NBA championship, leading the Lakers to glory in the NBA bubble where he was named the NBA Finals’ most valuable player.
(Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images)

L.A. County’s outdoor dining ban met yet another hurdle Wednesday, when a judge ordered the county to show evidence justifying it. The county must return to court Tuesday to present scientific evidence supporting the ban. Los Angeles Times

Meanwhile, the Beverly Hills City Council voted to oppose L.A. County’s outdoor dining ban and asked city staff to research the idea of forming its own Beverly Hills public health department. But don’t try and take a seat at La Scala just yet — despite its opposition, the city will continue to follow the county’s rules, at least for now. Los Angeles Times

A quick refresher for anyone confused by how all of this works: Los Angeles’ controversial outdoor dining ban was ordered by the county public health department, which oversees all but two of the 88 cities in L.A. County. Pasadena and Long Beach both have their own health departments, which is why the city of Pasadena had the authority to issue its own rules and keep outdoor restaurants open (Long Beach chose to follow the county ban because of its higher case rate.) As ABC7 reports, a number of other cities in the county are now looking into creating their own health departments.

Mayor Eric Garcetti said Los Angeles will offer a one-time $800 stipend to employees who work in food service industries, including restaurants, breweries and food stands. The Secure Emergency Relief for Vulnerable Employees, or SERVE, initiative will give 4,000 workers the cash using money from the nonprofit Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles. Applications open Monday, and the link to apply will be available on the SERVE initiative website. Los Angeles Times


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Democratic leaders swung behind a bipartisan COVID-19 relief effort Wednesday, cutting their demands for a $2-trillion-plus measure by more than half in hopes of breaking a months-long logjam and delivering much-sought aid as a coda to a tempestuous congressional session. Los Angeles Times

“Physically, I’m OK, but I’m in a brain fog.” Folsom’s mayor describes her ongoing battle with COVID-19 after being released from the ICU. Sacramento Bee

San Francisco is poised to become the largest U.S. city to ban smoking in apartments and condominiums, with one notable exception to the rule: cannabis. Los Angeles Times


An investigation into a newborn’s death plunged two detectives into a murky world of young addicts and small-time drug dealers, with a disgraced multimillionaire at the center: Dr. Carmen Puliafito, the former dean of USC’s Keck School of Medicine, who said he had done nothing wrong. In the end, authorities wrestled with one question: Was what happened to the baby a crime? Los Angeles Times


Ambulances in San Bernardino County are no longer responding to every sick person who calls 911 as COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to surge. Los Angeles Times



Another stalwart of Silicon Valley departs: Hewlett Packard Enterprise is moving its headquarters to Texas. San Francisco Chronicle

Major League Baseball has given the Fresno Grizzlies more time to work out the fate of the franchise. The MLB said the minor league team must accept a demotion from Triple-A to Single-A baseball by Monday or prepare to go without affiliation to a team in the majors. Fresno Bee

“Forget pandemic puppies; it’s all about COVID chickens.” Chicken-keeping as artisanal hobby is apparently on the rise in the Bay Area. San Francisco Chronicle

The monolith mystery now extends to California: A strange silver obelisk appeared in an Atascadero park, drawing comparisons to a similar shining object that mysteriously appeared in Utah last month. Atascadero News

A poem to start your Thursday: “To the Virgins to Make Much of Time” by Robert Herrick. The Writer’s Almanac

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Los Angeles: sunny, 73. San Diego: sunny, 73. San Francisco: partly sunny, 63. San Jose: sunny, 68. Fresno: sunny, 68. Sacramento: sunny, 64. More weather is here.


Today’s California memory comes from Jerome Paul Finnigan:

In 1943, when I was 7, with my older brothers in the service, I took over the rear bedroom of our three-story home in San Francisco’s Outer Richmond. From my bedroom window you could see over rooftops out to Ocean Beach and the Pacific. Because blackout rules were enforced at night, all our windows were covered by black shades. One night I decided to play “spy” and raise and lower my shade as if sending a Morse code message. It didn’t take long for our block’s air raid warden to ring our doorbell. No one appreciated my little experiment, especially my father who was a part-time volunteer warden.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.