Palatine High School has lost one of its "all-time greats."
Joe Johnson, who coached the school's track and cross country teams for more than 30 years, used that term liberally to describe any Palatine runner who returned to the school.
"Joe was all about making people feel good about themselves, and their efforts," said Fred Miller of Palatine, who succeeded Johnson as the school's track and cross and country coach. "You'd think these guys were Olympic champions, the way he'd talk about them."
Johnson, who was inducted into the Palatine High School Athletic Hall of Fame and the Illinois Track and Cross Country Coaches' Association Hall of Fame, died on Christmas Eve. He was 74.
Chris Quick, the current boys' cross country coach at Palatine, said the team learned of Mr. Johnson's diagnosis of throat cancer in November.
"It's ironic that with his strong history of clean living -- physical fitness, no smoking, no drinking -- that he would be diagnosed with this type of cancer," Quick said. "Yet, all of us coaches and athletes know that Palatine cross country would not be what it is without Joe Johnson. He is quite simply the model for what we do."
Johnson coached track and cross country from 1959 until 1991, establishing a tradition of excellence in both programs, colleagues say.
"He was a bit of a southern boy when I hired him, and he stayed that way all his life," said Chic Anderson, former Palatine athletic director. "But he was always a straight shooter, who meant exactly what he said, and never had a harsh word for anyone."
Johnson's legacy includes coaching individual state champions as well as 12 teams that advanced to the Illinois High School Association state meets. His 1981 cross country team finished second in state.
One of his state champions, Bob Watson of Lake in the Hills, described Johnson as a mentor and a role model for his runners, who ran with the team and considered them all part of his extended family.
"He knew how to drive you, and when to back off," said Watson, who was the 1989 cross country state champion. "As a team, we'd have meetings where we'd say that if we didn't want to do it for ourselves, we'd do it for Yo-Jay (Johnson)."
Many of Johnson's practices remain with the Palatine teams today, colleagues say, from the 6 a.m. runs every day during the summer, to the Palatine Invite. He started the event, which now draws more than 2,000 participants every September to Deer Grove Forest Preserve.
He also is credited with starting the school's girls' track team in 1975, which won the Palatine Invite the very next year.
"We have this huge culture of running in Palatine -- and in our school," Quick said. "And it all started with this guy."
Johnson was preceded in death in 2003 by his wife, Andrea, who at the time was the longest living heart transplant recipient, having survived 15 years. He is survived by his companion, Patricia Grizzard, daughter, Jenny (Eric) Warden, and three grandchildren.
Services will be held Monday in Tucson.
In lieu of flowers, family members ask that contributions be made to the Joe Johnson Memorial Running Fund, care of High School District 211, 1750 S. Roselle Road, Palatine, IL 60067.