Running Down A Dream
Two of Eric Johnson's biggest thrills are completing a marathon and meeting a fundraising challenge. At Tufts, he does both skillfully.
In fitness, milestones are important. But when Eric Johnson began training to participate in the President's Marathon Challenge at Tufts, those milestones were particularly notable.
"Before we got the opportunity to participate in the Boston Marathon, I hadn't run more than five miles in any one run in my life," recalls the executive director of development at Tufts. "So when I started training for the first time to run the Boston Marathon, every time I did a long run in the training it was the longest run I'd ever done."
And on that first 26.2 mile run on Patriot's Day 2003, he logged an impressive time of four hours, 44 minutes, which remains a personal best.
"If you look at most of the runners, I'm not the typical body type for a long distance runner," explains Johnson, a former collegiate baseball player. "So it's a huge challenge for me. But that's the biggest thrill is being able to finish it."
But running wasn't always a strong suit for Johnson. While he had run before, "it wasn't really to run, it was just fitness." He first started seriously running to encourage his wife, Regina, who took up the sport after she quit smoking two decades ago. ("I took her out for a run and she didn't even make it to the mailbox," recalls Johnson of their early outings.) Now, he says, she can often outpace him.
"She still runs with me. That's one of the main things I enjoy," he says.
They're both among the nearly 200 Tufts staff, faculty, students, parents, alumni and friends who plan to run on Patriot's Day for the fourth annual President's Marathon Challenge, which supports nutrition, medical and fitness research and education at Tufts.
The large team, coupled with an ambitious fundraising goal of $400,000, signifies the program's growth and success since its inception in 2003. In fact, the President's Marathon Challenge is the largest educational-based program participating in the marathon this year.
"I still remember when we did our qualifying run for the first one we thought we might get 30 or 40 students who were interested and we had close to 200 come out to run," Johnson remembers. "We knew pretty early on that this was going to have a lot of interest."
And part of Johnson's role is focusing that interest on meeting all the goals of the Marathon Challenge.
"Eric is the quarterback in terms of making sure everyone does what they’re supposed to do," says team member and training consultant Miriam Nelson, director of the John Hancock Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition and associate professor of nutrition at the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.
A Winding Path
Much as he never intended to become a marathoner, Johnson didn't originally plan on a career in fundraising. A Massachusetts native, Johnson headed to Washington D.C. for college at George Washington with an eye on pursuing a career in politics. He worked on Capitol Hill and in the White House—meeting Regina along the way—before finding his true calling after doing some fundraising with an educational association.
"If you talk to most fundraisers, their path to fundraising is a circuitous route," says Johnson. "Now I see some college students come and talk to me who are thinking about fundraising as a career... I doubt there were more than 10 people in the country 25 years ago who were thinking about it when they were in college."
If his path to fundraising was circuitous, his path to Tufts was fortuitous. In 1988, he and Regina decided to return to Massachusetts to raise their children, and Eric was looking for a job. His parents—both 1954 graduates of Tufts—happened to be vacationing on the same tiny Maine island with the then-vice president of development at Tufts. Spotted in their Tufts sweatshirts, Johnson's parents struck up conversation and mentioned that their son wanted to do fundraising for a college.
Three weeks later, Johnson was working at Tufts. Eighteen years later, he's worked his way up the ranks and continues to thrive in the collegiate environment. "I find that everyday it's exciting and invigorating to be around young people and faculty and all the interesting things that are going on," he says.
Eric Johnson and Miriam Nelson on a marathon training run.
One of his favorite parts of the job is building relationships with Tufts alumni and friends—notably his work with Pierre and Pam Omidyar on their $10 million gift in 1999 that helped found the University College of Citizenship and Public Service and their recent $100 million gift to launch the Omidyar-Tufts Microfinance Fund.
"The microfinance thing was primarily Pierre's idea" recalls Johnson. "President [Lawrence S.] Bacow was a very important player in shaping how it could work within the environment at Tufts and how it could set an example for others… I enjoyed being part of that creative process with both the president and Pierre to help make it work."
Another relationship both Johnson and his wife have enjoyed is their friendship with Trustee Steven B. Epstein and his wife, Deborah. The Epsteins have sponsored the Johnsons for $25,000 each year they have run the marathon, and they have pledged to keep that sponsorship going as long as the either of the Johnsons keep running.
"I had planned to continue running as long as my body held up," says Johnson. "But now I have even more incentive to keep going."
Johnson shares the sentiment of many that the President's Marathon Challenge is something more than just a fundraising initiative or a fitness regimen.
"I still have people from the first year who stay in touch with me," he says, ticking down a list of notable participants, including a student who ran that first year as a freshman and is returning to run again this year as a senior. "We have a couple from Hawaii who are coming back to run with their daughter. And that's not unusual. Two years ago we had a couple from Phoenix who came back to run with their daughter."
One of the most special things about the Tufts marathon team, Johnson agrees, is its leader, President Bacow.
"It's a very unique thing for a president of a university to lead a marathon team," he says. "He loves to talk when he runs, and he'll talk to anybody who wants to run with him. If people know that he's going to be at a run, you'll get a huge turnout."
And that, believes Johnson, is just one reason why the Marathon Challenge makes Tufts a unique place to work—and play.
"I've always found Tufts to be a very personal and friendly place," he says. "I think that something like the Marathon Challenge works well because this is a place where people care about each other and enjoy being with each other."
Profile written by Georgiana Cohen
Homepage photo by Melody Ko, University Photographer. Top photo by Brian Loeb (A'06). Side and middle photos courtesy of Don Megerle.
This story originally ran on Apr. 10, 2006.