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Wendy Johnson, longtime triathlete, race promoter and take-charge good Samaritan, dies at 50

Phone rings.

Wendy Johnson is on the line. Want to meet a bunch of us for dinner? Wendy has picked the restaurant, picked the time. She knows the menu and the price and where to park. At the table, when the waiter arrives, everybody orders promptly. Otherwise she may order for us all. Just kidding. But that's how she thinks about dawdlers. As long as I've known Wendy she has been a take-charge woman.

Years ago, a guy had a heart attack and drowned while swimming in a public pool. The Wendy factor came into play: "Why doesn't this pool have a defibrillator?" she asked. She took charge of the campaign. Now the pool has a defibrillator.

If, say, Wendy sees somebody, say, walking their dog, say, on the beach, Wendy will tell that person, a perfect stranger, burly, with tattoos and earrings, kind of scary looking: "Hey, you! Nobody wants to step in your dog's poop. Get him off the beach right now!"

Let's say Wendy is on a bike ride. Let's say a doofus in an SUV has sped past her and made an immediate right in front of her. She has to brake, skids, comes close to falling. The Wendy factor: She upshifts and pedals furiously. Doofus, heh hey, has to stop at the light ahead. Wendy glides up, taps on the glass, says with fury: "Hey, buddy. You almost killed me back there! What were you thinking?"

Let's say a friend of Wendy's is sick. Wendy phones, sends an e-mail, brings food.

Let's say the kids at Sunday school are restless. Wendy puts the fear of God in them. Let's say a young woman, a little wild, engages in self-destructive behavior. Wendy, who turned 50 on her last birthday, remembers what it was like to be young. She becomes the young woman's mentor.

Wendy's old friend, Rose, loses her kindly husband, Buzz. Wendy lets everyone know about Buzz. She makes sure Rose knows that she is there for her. A friend's teenage daughter, Emily, is diagnosed with leukemia. Wendy helps the young woman achieve something important on her bucket list: a bone-marrow education drive. After Emily dies, Wendy is there to grieve with everyone.

• • •

Phone rings.

February 2009.

It's Wendy's friend, Dianne.

"Wendy had a seizure."

So Wendy's friends Gary and Bill go to the hospital. Wendy is breathing through some kind of device. Anyway, she can't talk. Gary makes a joke about Wendy's inability to speak — something that never ever happens. The Wendy factor: She extends her middle finger in Gary's direction.

Wendy was born in Chattanooga, Tenn., and grew up in Birmingham, Ala. She is bossy like some New Yorkers but with a Southern accent. She worked her way through high school and the University of Alabama as a lifeguard. She planned on becoming an accountant, but instead made a lot of money selling computer software in Pittsburgh and Atlanta. Her sales credo: "Never take no for an answer.''

In 1997, Wendy vacations in Florida, where her sister, Carol, helps set up a blind date with this handsome guy, Al Johnson, an engineer at GE.

Wendy is an endurance athlete and so is Al. Wendy is bossy and Al can be grumpy. Somehow they hit it off. In 1998 they marry.

Al has enough money to retire. Now he can exercise as long and as hard as he wants. Fat chance. Wendy makes him go to work again. They start Motion Sports Management. They put on athletic events, mostly running races such as the Bay-to-Bay and the St. Pete Beach Classic.

After the seizure, Wendy's doctors order a series of tests.

• • •

Phone rings.

Still February 2009.

Mary Ann on the line.

"Wendy has brain cancer."

But she's going to fight. Of course she will. That's what Wendy does.

Surgery. Radiation. Nausea. She loses her thick, auburn hair.

Wendy starts a blog, read by thousands of her friends, writing about the ups, the downs, about her moods, about how she can hardly stand to be inactive. Time passes and her strength returns. Soon she is swimming 1,500 meters at the pool, biking 15 miles, running 3, ordering her friends around, trying to boss Al. "Bulls---, Wendy!" says a husband who is no pushover.

The damn cancer.

Months later it comes back.

So she returns to the hospital, where her doctors treat her disease aggressively. The cancer fades, but she begins losing her sight. It has to do with swollen optical nerves. Now the job of writing the blog falls to Al and her sister, Carol.

The Wendy factor: She figures a way to endure. Talks about getting books on compact disc. Somebody buys her It's Not About the Bike, Lance Armstrong's account of his battle with cancer. She listens to True Compass: a Memoir, Ted Kennedy's autobiography. Ted is fighting brain cancer, he's a ferocious liberal and he's long been an advocate of universal health care, just like Wendy.

Blind, she rides a stationary bicycle. Blind, she does yoga.

She wants to stay strong for Al.

For all of us.

• • •

Phone rings.

April 13, 2010.

It's Mary Ann.

"Wendy has taken a turn for the worst." She can't keep food down. Well, maybe applesauce. She sleeps most of the time. She's in and out of consciousness. Everybody hopes for a miracle. But we want her to know it's okay to leave us.

On April 14, we all gather in the living room: Mary Ann Renfrow and her sister Virginia Adcock, Linda Borgia, Dr. Roland Lajoie and his wife, Diane. On the way are Diane and Peter Sector, Karin Kmetz, Bill and Sue Castleman, Susan Harmeling, Wendy's sister Carol Wells and her mother, Sarah Fechter.

Wendy's husband, Al, says, "I can't get my arms around this." Nobody tries to hold back the tears.

The hospice nurse has arrived.

I go upstairs. Wendy looks tiny on the bed. She's as bald as a baby mockingbird. I hold her hand. She opens eyes that can no longer see. I read to her.

• • •

Phone rings.

April 20.

I don't want to answer, but I do.

"Wendy died tonight at 9:05 p.m."

Diane Sector, Karin Kmetz and Mary Ann Renfrow wash her. They slip her favorite summer dress, blue with a floral pattern, over her poor body.

Diane Lajoie finds Wendy's makeup. Diane applies lipstick. Then she rouges up those pale cheeks.

When the ambulance comes to get her a while later, Wendy looks like a million bucks.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at klink@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8727.

if you go

Honor service

A service honoring Wendy Johnson is scheduled for
11 a.m. Tuesday at Pasadena Community Church, 112 70th St. S, St. Petersburg. A reception will follow.

Wendy Johnson, longtime triathlete, race promoter and take-charge good Samaritan, dies at 50 04/21/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 23, 2010 8:27pm]

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