Wearing shirts printed with the numbers 54 and 123, the 20 members of Team Ari struggled under the beating sun as they neared the finish line of the ODDyssey half marathon on Sunday.
“At about mile 10 and a half out of 13 … I was close to thinking about dropping out,” 2002 College graduate Mark Lion remembered. “It was really hard all of a sudden, really humid.”
But Mark persevered because he, like the rest of his team, was running for a cause that was greater than the spirit of competition: the memory of their friend, 2001 College graduate and Tau Epsilon Phi brother Ari Johnson, who committed suicide on Feb. 15 of this year.
The numbers on their shirts — 54 and 123 — represent Ari’s high school football number and the number brothers used to refer to TEP in the early days of email. The team raised over $65,000 for Active Minds — a mental health organization on college campuses across the country — in honor of Ari.
“We’re running to honor our friend’s memory so that other people don’t have to,” 2000 College graduate and TEP fraternity brother Jeremy Shure said.
The idea to run a half marathon came into being about a month after Ari’s death. 2004 College graduate Emily Lerman sent out an email to her three siblings to ask them if they wanted to run for Active Minds in Ari’s memory.
Emily, who had struggled with mental health problems of her own a few years ago, knew of Active Minds because it helped her get through her own issues.
And after hearing about Ari’s death — which “[her] family took really hard” because they had been close with the Johnsons for years — she thought that running for the organization would be a good way to honor his memory.
“After this happened with Ari, I [had] to get other people on board for this because this can’t happen again,” Emily said. “I said [at first] I’m going to try to get other people involved — I’m not really sure if this is going to work but we can see what we can do.”
Initially, the fundraising goal was $20,000, which Emily considered ambitious. But after her father, 1969 Wharton graduate Steven Lerman, contacted Jeremy and asked him to be one of the team’s co-captains, things took off.
“[Jeremy] contacted his TEP brothers, and my brothers recruited some runners — I got in touch with some of Ari’s friends from high school, and they ran with us too,” Emily said. “It just kind of became this movement for Ari.”
“We started small,” Steven said. “And we now have 20 runners [who have] been training since March for this run.”
Although training began early, initially it was a struggle for some of the team members because most of them usually did not run competitively.
But nearly 12 weeks later, all of Team Ari’s members completed the 13.1 mile run in honor of their friend.
“I am not a runner,” said Stephanie Lerman, a 2002 College graduate and close friend of Ari, “but [this] was an important cause and I made it happen somehow.”
An amazing person
Ari’s father Leslie Johnson remembered that Ari was only known for “positive things.”
“He was the greatest son you could have,” Leslie said. “He was never a problem — always focused.”
One of these things was his bear hugs. “He was bear hugs,” Jeremy said. “He would embrace you with his friendship.”
Another was sports. Ari, who was well over six feet tall and an avid sports fan, played for Penn’s varsity football team.
“He was coachable,” Ari’s mother Lillian Page-Johnson said. “When you asked Ari to do something, he did it.”
Ari also “treated his friends like his family.”
“You could watch a game with him or talk about your feelings with him,” Jeremy said. “[And] he would have been the guy at the finish line giving everyone a bear hug.”
When Ari committed suicide — exactly 16 years after his grandfather and former TEP houseman Alzie Jackson died — his family and friends were at a loss for words.
“If you knew Ari, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense,” said Mark, who pledged TEP the year after Ari. “It didn’t add up. Everyone was just shocked.”
“I wish if something was wrong, he would have known to reach out,” Jeremy said.
But this marathon was a testament to the fact that his friends and family will always remember him for the amazing person that he was.
“Of course I miss him,” Leslie said. “But he won’t be forgotten. He’s touched so many people.”
Stephanie remembered that when she finished the race, she was filled with “mixed emotions.”
“It feels good to accomplish something that difficult,” she said. “[But] it’s disheartening that this is over … [and] it’s unfortunate Ari is not here to see what an impact he had on all these people.”
For Leslie, it “feels good” to have seen Ari’s friends run in his memory. “It kind of reflected how I felt about him — and how other people felt about him,” he said.
Mark remembered that Ari was one of the reasons why he was able to get through the race. “I thought of Ari,” he said. “I thought of all the people out there who had supported us and I thought about all the people out there who were struggling and it helped [me get through].”
However, Ari’s legacy will continue past Sunday’s race.
Jeremy said that he has already started planning for another race next year and that he is thinking of making it an annual event. Steven Lerman, Emily and Stephanie’s father, has also contacted the University in the hopes of establishing a scholarship in Ari’s name.
“We’ll start the campaign [soon] and hopefully raise enough money by the end of 2013,” Steven said.
Staff writer Will Marble contributed reporting.Comments powered by Disqus
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