Eppie Johnson is a classic Sacramento success story.
From a family of Greek immigrants, he came to one of the nation’s most diverse cities a half century ago to work at his father’s restaurants. He built a local chain of 24-hour coffee shops and also opened eateries in Lake Tahoe, Las Vegas and San Francisco. He became a local celebrity, appearing in popular TV commercials in which he carried trays of food while skiing on snow and water.
His biggest claim to fame came from his love of the outdoors in a region blessed by Mother Nature. An avid kayaker, he came up with the quirky idea of a three-event race – running, cycling and kayaking – as a marketing gimmick and a charity fundraiser. This was 1974 – four years before the now world-famous Ironman triathlon started.
Johnson passed away in his sleep over the weekend at his Sacramento home. He was 85. His full first name was Eppaminondas, but everyone just called him Eppie.
While the coffee shops eventually fell on hard times, his namesake race became an institution, with local celebrities, politicians and generations of families taking part. The race is different from other triathlons because kayaking replaces swimming, but also because it draws a wide range of skill levels and because teams can split up the three legs – a 5.82-mile run, 12.5 miles on bicycle and 6.35 miles kayaking on the American River.
The first year, 138 people raced. Now, the race usually draws about 2,000. Thousands of people from around the world come to watch. So far, it has raised more than $1 million for a county agency that provides recreational and other activities for residents with physical and mental disabilities.
As Eppie’s Great Race marked its 40th anniversary in July, he wasn’t boasting when he said, “We’ve become part of the fabric of Sacramento.”
That is a legacy that any of us would be proud to claim.