Coddy Johnson began his career at the Landon School a year above Mark Ferris, but when Ferris was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes in the sixth grade, he missed a year and the two boys became classmates.
They also became teammates, bandmates, roommates and friends.
“All boys schools tend to have a lot of cliques,” Johnson, 29, said. “He was sort of the one guy who transcended all those. … His demeanor was so low-key he just was a part of every one.”
When Ferris died in December 1999 from a heart attack stemming from his diabetes, “All of us — almost the whole class — flew back for the funeral,” Johnson said.
Ferris had a way of bringing people together.
TWO YEARS LATER, Johnson and others from the Class of 1994 started Mark’s Run, an annual 5K race and walk at the school to raise money for diabetes research and for a scholarship fund in Ferris’ memory.
They wanted it to be an event that had all the same characteristics as their friend: low-key, good-natured, something that brought people together.
In four years, the run has raised close to $500,000, with the money divided between the scholarship and the Joslin Diabetes Center at Harvard University. The 2006 Mark’s Run takes place May 21 at the school, and is open to everyone.
FERRIS GREW UP in Bethesda and later moved to Potomac. He played lacrosse and football throughout his Landon career in spite of his diabetes. During periods of family trouble, he lived with two Landon classmates, both of whom became close friends.
He was neither an exceptional athlete nor an exceptional student, said Barbara Goodwyn, a parent co-chair of Mark’s Run until last year, “He was just a great guy. In some ways he represents the true Landon boy.”
Other students knew about Ferris’ diabetes, but he rarely mentioned it. He tried to keep his problems — and theirs — in perspective.
Once, Ferris and Johnson’s band played a show at an all-girls school. Ferris fainted during the show from a diabetic episode.
“He passed out on stage but the girls thought it was part of our show and went crazy,” Johnson recalled. Ferris, being helped off the stage, managed a fist pump to stir the crowd even further.
The last time Johnson saw Ferris, Johnson was struggling through the early stages of his career and had come home to reconsider his situation. The pair drove to a field where they used to sit and talked for several hours, with Ferris dispensing most of the advice.
“The one part where he was not laid back was with friendships. … he actively sought them out, actively grew them, cultivated them,” Johnson said. “I look back and it’s just sort of really rare. … He sort of knew where his energy would matter most.”
THAT'S THE SAME idea that spurs the organizers of the run.
Joslin is a world leader in diabetes research and could well cure diabetes within current patients’ lifetimes. At the same time, it has helped increase life expectancy for people with diabetes — which impairs their ability to process glucose in the blood — and curbed the incidence of life-threatening complications like the heart attack that killed Ferris.
At the same time, the memorial scholarship is a way that people can benefit from the run immediately.
Until last year, the run was a part of Landon’s annual Azalea Festival, but volunteers were burning out from the effort of having the events together. Organizers moved the run to Landon’s Alumni Weekend three weeks later, hoping to draw in more alumni runners and more participants from the community at large.
In addition to the 5K run and 1-mile fun run and walk, the event features music and food, cash prizes and other prizes donated by corporate sponsors and a festive awards ceremony.
“It’s just amazing the amount of heart and soul that goes into this event,” said Liz Nibley, a Landon parent.
Last year, Mark’s Run drew more than 250 participants. Goodwyn hopes that number will increase, especially people not directly affiliated with Landon.
“That’s why we started this, was to reach out to the community,” she said. “Wherever [Ferris] went he was the pied piper.”
More important than the money, Johnson said, “Our hope is that what really lives on is this spirit of people really coming together.”