Dave Johnson has been affiliated with the Penn Relays in some fashion since 1978, the last 25 years as director of the carnival, the longest tenure of anyone in that position since the meet’s inception in 1895.
During that time, Johnson came up with a number of ideas and concepts related to the Penn Relays that he wanted to pursue but never was able to do given the sheer volume of work that kept the carnival ticking year after year, except in the case of a pandemic that shut the 2020 meet down for the first time.
After thinking it over the last few years, the 69-year-old Johnson announced Thursday that he was retiring as the director of the world’s oldest and largest relay carnival so he could put together a history of track and field, a passion that he said “first pulled me to the Relays.”
Johnson said he is donating his entire track and field library to the Penn Relays. It is made up of more than 50 years of results, programs, media guides, magazines and scrapbooks from the Relays to international meets such as the Olympics and the IAAF World Track and Field Championships.
“There is the constant fear among many of us old folks about what to do with our libraries and our track collections, books and magazines and all sorts of meet results from before electronic years,” Johnson said Thursday. “What do you do with this stuff?
“This is the start of something that I hope will really take hold. The national track and field library that originated in Indianapolis was started with the retirement of [former Penn Relays director] Ken Doherty. His library was the original basis for it. So this is sort of bringing it full circle in a way, kind of set things up here at Penn.”
A search for Johnson’s successor will begin in January.
Johnson, who will stay on for the 2021 Penn Relays in a reduced capacity, first worked for the carnival in 1978 researching and revamping the historical section of the Penn Relays program. He joined the staff in 1988 as associate director and moved up to director in December 1995 after the resignation of Tim Baker.
Johnson said he wanted to work on compiling the history while he had “some good productive years mentally” ahead. He said it was good to get out from under “meetings, paperwork and decisions” in his director’s role.
“It’s time for people who are going to be around five and 10 and 15 years from now to make the decisions, and carry them out,” he said.
During his time as director, Johnson introduced the “USA vs. The World” competition, which featured U.S. Olympic and professional athletes taking on competitors from Jamaica and other countries on the Saturday of Penn Relays weekend. The carnival also became more modernized through technology in the application process and the events conducted under his leadership.
“The good thing was seeing not just the fruition of what could be done with technology and computers but to see it go way, way beyond anything that I was imagining 30 years ago,” he said. “At one time, the big goal was to, in my mind, stop typing the same name from an entry card seven or eight times and type it only once.”
Johnson said his favorite athlete from his Penn Relays years was Renaldo Nehemiah, whose come-from-25-meters-behind 44.3-second anchor leg for Maryland’s 4x400-meter relay team in 1979 was an epic moment. Two of his favorite relay races were Long Beach Poly outdueling St. Jago of Jamaica in the 2007 high school boys 4x400, and the 2015 college men’s 4-by-mile relay. In that race, Oregon’s Edward Cheserek slowed the anchor leg literally to a crawl hoping that someone would pass him, and then got outkicked at the end by Villanova’s Jordy Williamsz.
“I’m sure there are fans out there who say it’s the worst race they’ve ever seen run at Penn, but I thought it was one of the greatest races I’ve ever seen,” Johnson said.
Johnson is a longtime fixture in the track and field world, serving on the advisory board of the Bowerman Award, presented annually to the top men’s and women’s collegiate track and field athlete. He also is a member of Track and Field News’ world rankings panel, and helped establish and maintain the historical database for the International Amateur Athletic Federation, the world governing body of the sport.