Sixty years after he edged a UCLA training partner on weary legs in one of the most dramatic finishes in Olympic history, Rafer Johnson’s presence continued to blaze on campus like an inextinguishable flame.
He was a regular at track meets and basketball games and gymnastics meets even as his health declined, always graciously accepting requests to pose for photos with anyone who asked. He was also a confidant to longtime athletic director Dan Guerrero, serving as a special advisor who offered wisdom and guidance that no pricey consultant could match.
Johnson’s legacy as a decathlon champion and humanitarian, not to mention his trusted friendship, made it especially meaningful for Guerrero to be part of dedicating the Betsy and Rafer Johnson Track last year at UCLA’s Drake Stadium.
“It’s not a stretch for me to say that Rafer was the greatest of all Bruins,” Guerrero told The Times on Wednesday upon learning of Johnson’s death at his home in Sherman Oaks at age 86.
“When you think about it, apart from his athletic prowess, which placed him in history among the most heralded of all athletes, he passionately and selflessly and humbly dedicated his life to better people and our society whether it was through his work with Special Olympics, mentoring young students or his commitment to civil rights. He was a giant, there was no question about that, and while this description is probably thrown around rather capriciously, in this case it’s true.
A look back at The Times’ coverage of the life of Rafer Johnson, who died Wednesday at 86.
He was a friendly legend. Art Spander, who covered Johnson’s track exploits in the late 1950s as sports editor for the Daily Bruin before going on to become a longtime sports columnist in the Bay Area, recalled the nonchalance of his presence on campus.
“You know, it was a ‘Hi, Rafer’ type of thing and he went on his way and other students went on their way and he went to class,” Spander said. “I’d see him on campus and we’d talk and he was just a very unpretentious, good guy.”
Johnson captained UCLA’s freshman track and field team upon his arrival before winning a gold medal in the Pan American Games in the summer of 1955. The next year, he led UCLA to its first NCAA track and field championship.
He was elected student body president, displeasing detractors who sent him hate mail because he was Black. Johnson found refuge from the racial strife while playing basketball for two seasons under coach John Wooden, averaging 8.2 points per game as a starter during the 1958-59 season.
With the Dodgers having just arrived in Los Angeles and the Lakers still playing in Minneapolis, track was a huge draw in those days. Spander recalled large crowds jamming the Coliseum to watch meets involving Johnson and C.K. Yang, a fellow Bruin who became his training partner for the Olympics.
Johnson cemented himself as a worldwide sensation after holding off Yang in the final event of the two-day decathlon in the 1960 Rome Olympics. He finished only 1.2 seconds behind Yang in the 1,500-meter run, allowing the narrow points lead he had built entering the event to give him the gold medal.
“When Rafer got back [to Los Angeles], people were very happy,” Spander remembered. “It’s like, hey, we’ve got a world champion here.”
Johnson immediately retired from track but went on to help launch the California Special Olympics and was selected to light the Coliseum caldron before the 1984 Olympics. Avery Anderson, the UCLA director of track and field who had known Johnson for nearly three decades before his death, said Johnson had a naturally nurturing way with disabled children.
“I saw him as a loving father to his children and husband to his wife,” Anderson said, “but to the people he doesn’t know, especially with the Special Olympians, he never was any different. When you were dealing with Rafer, you were dealing with a gracious, caring, loving person and he was that way with everyone.”
Johnson remained a fixture at UCLA throughout the years, showing up at meets and offering encouragement that often left those on the receiving end wide-eyed.
“He’s the Michael Jordan of track, in my mind,” Anderson said, “and having his presence there as a Bruin, it’s always meant that and felt like that bigger-than-life figure and he’s our own as a Bruin.”
That presence continued to be felt after Johnson’s passing. UCLA basketball coach Mick Cronin appeared visibly upset when he opened his Zoom meeting with reporters Wednesday afternoon by offering a tribute to the legend whom he had hosted at his home during an event for former players.
“What a gracious man,” Cronin said. “Going back, and after meeting him, then reading about some of the things that went on in his life, I wish I had the character he had to deal with the things he dealt with with grace and dignity.”
Kobe Bryant, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sean Connery and more. (Los Angeles Times)
Rafer Johnson, winner of the 1960 Olympic decathlon gold medal, 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. Johnson lit the Olympic flame at the opening of the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. He was 86. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
With his quick wit and easy smile, Alex Trebek drove the game show “Jeopardy!” up the ratings charts and became a welcome television host in America’s living rooms. As the quiz show rolled through the decades, Trebek remained a comfortable fit — in a 2014 Reader’s Digest poll, Trebek ranked as the eighth-most trusted person in the United States, right behind Bill Gates and 51 spots above Oprah Winfrey. He was 80. (Los Angeles Times)
Sean Connery was forever tied to the role of James Bond, secret agent 007, who preferred his martinis shaken, not stirred. The Scottish actor first took on the role in the 1962 action-thriller “Dr. No,” which launched one of the most successful movie franchises of all time. He was 90. (MGM Home Entertainment INC)
Guitarist Eddie Van Halen’s speed and innovations along the fretboard inspired a generation of imitators as the band bearing his name rose to MTV stardom and multiplatinum sales over 10 consecutive albums. The streak made Van Halen one of the most successful bands in rock history, including two albums that reached diamond status (10 million copies sold): 1978’s debut “Van Halen” and 1984’s “1984.” He was 65. (Wibbitz/Getty)
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg championed women’s rights — first as a trailblazing civil rights attorney who methodically chipped away at discriminatory practices, then as the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court, and finally as an unlikely pop culture icon. A feminist hero dubbed Notorious RBG, Ginsburg became the leading voice of the court’s liberal wing, best known for her stinging dissents on a bench that mostly skewed right since her 1993 appointment. She was 87. (Kiichiro Sato / Associated Press)
Chadwick Boseman’s breakout role was playing Dodger Jackie Robinson in the 2013 sports biopic “42.” The next year, he made an electrifying lead turn as James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, in “Get on Up.” Then came the role that would change his career: As Black Panther, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first Black superhero, Boseman became the face of Wakanda to millions of fans around the world and helped usher in a new and inclusive era of superhero blockbusters. He was 43. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Sumner Redstone outmaneuvered rivals to assemble one of America’s leading entertainment companies, now called ViacomCBS, which boasts CBS, Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, BET, Showtime, the Simon & Schuster book publisher and Paramount Pictures movie studio. Unlike contemporaries Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner, Redstone was not a visionary, but rather a hard-charging lawyer and deal maker who pursued power and wealth through the accumulation of content companies. He was 97.
(Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Regis Philbin reigned for decades as the comfortable and sometimes cantankerous morning host of “Live,” first with Kathie Lee Gifford and later Kelly Ripa, above. He earned Emmy nominations by the armful, hosted New Year’s Eve specials, rode in parades, set a record for the most face-time hours on television and helped reinvigorate prime-time game shows with “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” He was 88. (Charles Sykes / Associated Press)
Rep. John Lewis famously shed his blood at the foot of a Selma, Ala., bridge in a 1965 demonstration for Black voting rights, and went on to become a 17-term Democratic member of Congress. An inspirational figure for decades, Lewis was one of the last survivors among members of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s inner circle. He was 80. (Mark Humphrey / Associated Press)
Country music firebrand and fiddler Charlie Daniels started out as a session musician, which included playing on Bob Dylan’s 1969 album “Nashville Skyline,” and beginning in the early 1970s toured endlessly with his own band, sometimes doing 250 shows a year. In 1979, Daniels had a crossover smash with “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” which topped the country chart, hit No. 3 on the pop chart and was voted single of the year by the Country Music Assn. He was 83. (Rick Diamond / Getty Images for IEBA)
Carl Reiner first came to national attention in the 1950s on Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows,” where he wrote alongside Mel Brooks, Neil Simon and other comedy legends. He later created “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” one of TV’s most fondly remembered sitcoms, and directed hit films including “The Comic” (1969), starring Van Dyke; “Where’s Poppa?” (1970), starring George Segal and Ruth Gordon; “Oh, God!” starring George Burns and John Denver; and four films starring Steve Martin. He was 98. (Associated Press )
Wisecracking straight man Fred Willard rose to prominence playing an amateur actor in the 1996 film “Waiting for Guffman.” He won an American Comedy Award for his role as an over-the-top dog show host in the 2000 film “Best in Show,” and spent three seasons on the hit CBS sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond” as the conservative middle-school vice principal Hank MacDougall, earning three Emmy nominations. He was 86. (Suzanne Tenner / HBO)
The flamboyant, piano-pounding Little Richard roared into the rock ‘n’ roll spotlight in the 1950s with hits such as “Tutti-Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally” and “Good Golly, Miss Molly.” The Georgia native’s raucous sound fused gospel fervor and R&B sexuality, profoundly influencing the Beatles, James Brown (who succeeded him in one of his early bands), Jimi Hendrix (one of his backup musicians in the mid-’60s) and Bruce Springsteen. He was 87. (Boris Yaro / Los Angeles Times)
Roy Horn was the dark-haired half of Siegfried & Roy, the German-born illusionists whose disappearing white tigers and lions made them one of the biggest draws on the Las Vegas Strip. Horn reportedly had never had an onstage accident with the cats until 2003, when the tiger Mantecore, above, attacked him at the Mirage Hotel & Casino, severely wounding his neck. He was 75. (Siegfried & Roy)
Don Shula was the NFL’s winningest coach, leading the 1972 Miami Dolphins to the league’s only undefeated season. He coached the Baltimore Colts to one Super Bowl and the Dolphins to five, winning Lombardi Trophies after the 1972 and ’73 seasons. He was 90. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak crushed dissent for decades until the 2011 Arab Spring movement drove him from power. During his presidency, which spanned nearly 30 years, he protected Egypt’s stability as intifadas roiled Israel and the Palestinian territories, the U.S. led two wars against Iraq, Iran fomented militant Shiite Islam across the region and global terrorism complicated the divide between East and West. He was 91. (Sameh Sherif / AFP/Getty Images)
Among his 40-odd films, burly Brian Dennehy played a sheriff who jailed Rambo in “First Blood,” a serial killer in “To Catch a Killer” and a corrupt sheriff in “Silverado.” On Broadway, he was awarded Tonys for his roles in “Death of a Salesman” (1999) and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (2003). He was 81. (Dia Dipasupil)
Singer-songwriter John Prine broke onto the folk scene in 1971 with a self-titled album that included two songs brought to broader audiences by Bette Midler and Bonnie Raitt: “Hello in There” and “Angel From Montgomery,” respectively. In 2019, he was elected to the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He was 73. (Frazer Harrison / Getty Images for Stagecoach)
Country singer Kenny Rogers racked up an impressive string of hits — initially as a member of The First Edition starting in the late 1960s and later as a solo artist and duet partner with Dolly Parton — and earned three Grammy Awards, 19 nominations and a slew of accolades from country-music awards shows. Country purists balked at his syrupy ballads, but his fans packed arenas that only the titans of rock could fill. He was 81. (Suzanne Mapes / Associated Press)
Swedish actor Max von Sydow starred in several Ingmar Bergman movies, including “The Seventh Seal” (above, at left) and “The Virgin Spring,” then built a varied body of U.S. work that included the 1973 horror blockbuster “The Exorcist.” In a career that began in 1949, his rich repertory included Jesus Christ, clergymen, pontiffs, knights, conquerors, villains and the devil incarnate. He was 90. (File photo)
Xerox researcher Larry Tesler pioneered concepts that made computers more user-friendly, including moving text through cut, copy and paste. In 1980, he joined Apple, where he worked on the Lisa computer, the Newton personal digital assistant and the Macintosh. He was 74. (AP)
Mathematician Katherine Johnson calculated rocket trajectories for NASA’s early space missions, including Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 Mission, the first to carry an American into space, and John Glenn’s orbits around the planet. In 2015, Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama, and the next year was portrayed in the film “Hidden Figures.” She was 101. (NASA/Bill Ingalls )
Ski industry pioneer Dave McCoy transformed a remote Sierra peak into the storied Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. Over six decades, it grew from a downhill depot for friends to a profitable operation of 3,000 workers and 4,000 acres of ski trails and lifts, a mecca for generations of skiers and boarders. He was 104. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Veteran TV personality Orson Bean brought his wit to “What’s My Line?” and “To Tell the Truth,” guest-starred on variety shows and bantered with talk show hosts such as Johnny Carson and Mike Douglas. Later in his career, he starred in “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” and “Desperate Housewives” while becoming a mainstay of Los Angeles’ small theater scene. He was 91. ( Sean Smith)
Screen icon Kirk Douglas brought a clenched-jawed intensity to an array of heroes and heels, receiving Oscar nominations for his performances as an opportunistic movie mogul in the 1952 drama “The Bad and the Beautiful” and as Vincent van Gogh in the 1956 drama “Lust for Life.” As executive producer of “Spartacus,” Douglas helped end the Hollywood blacklist by giving writer Dalton Trumbo screen credit under his own name. He was 103. (Annie Wells / Los Angeles Times)
“Queen of Suspense” Mary Higgins Clark became a perennial best-seller, writing or co-writing “A Stranger Is Watching,” “Daddy’s Little Girl” and more than 50 other favorites. Her sales topped 100 million copies, and many of her books, including “A Stranger is Watching” and “Lucky Day,” were adapted for movies and television. She was 92. (Associated Press)
Fred Silverman was the head of programming at CBS, where he championed a string of hits including “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “All in the Family,” “MASH” and “The Jeffersons.” Later at ABC, he programmed “Laverne & Shirley,” “The Love Boat,” “Happy Days” and the 12-hour epic saga “Roots.” He was 82. (Associated Press)
Kobe Bryant was just 18 when he started playing for the Lakers, but by the end of his 20-year career — all of it as a Laker — the Black Mamba was a five-time world champion, two-time Olympic gold medalist and 18-time All-Star. His post-basketball career included an Oscar for the animated short “Dear Basketball” and a series of children’s books that became New York Times bestsellers. He was 41. (Andrew D. Bernstein / NBAE / Getty Images)
Former California Rep. Fortney “Pete” Stark Jr. represented the East Bay in Congress for 40 years. The influential Democrat helped craft the Affordable Care Act, the signature healthcare achievement of the Obama administration, and also created the 1986 law best known as COBRA, which allows workers to stay on their employer’s health insurance plan after they leave a job. He was 88. (Associated Press)
News anchor Jim Lehrer appeared 12 times as a presidential debate moderator and helped build “PBS NewsHour” into an authoritative voice of public broadcasting. The program, first called “The Robert MacNeil Report” and then “The MacNeil-Lehrer Report,” became the nation’s first one-hour TV news broadcast in 1983. Lehrer was 85. (David McNew / Getty Images)
Terry Jones was a founding member of the Monty Python troupe who wrote and performed for their early ’70s TV series and films including “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” in 1975 and “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” in 1979. After the Pythons largely disbanded in the 1980s, Jones wrote books on medieval and ancient history, presented documentaries, wrote poetry and directed films. He was 77. (Associated Press)
Rush drummer Neil Peart was one of the most accomplished instrumentalists in rock history. Peart often cited swing-era drummers Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich among his primary inspirations, although he also credited Keith Moon, Ginger Baker and John Bonham as major influences. He was 67. (Andrew MacNaughtan)
Ben Bolch has been a Los Angeles Times staff writer since 1999. He is serving his second stint as the UCLA beat writer, which seems fitting since he has covered almost every sports beat except hockey and horse racing. Bolch is also the author of the recently released book “100 Things UCLA Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die.” He previously covered UCLA basketball from 2010-11 before going on to cover the NBA and the Clippers for five years. He happily traded in gobs of hotel points and airline miles to return to cover UCLA basketball and football in the summer of 2016. Bolch was once selected by NBA TV’s “The Starters” as the “Worst of the Week” after questioning their celebrity journalism-style questions at an NBA All-Star game and considers it one of his finer moments.