Tributes paid to ‘straight-talking and determined’ Horsham man

Tony Johnson, left, died in July 2019.
Tony Johnson, left, died in July 2019.

Tribute has been paid to a Horsham man who campaigned for the Bridge leisure centre in Broadbridge Heath.

Anthony Christopher Johnson, known as Tony, died in July, three years after being diagnosed with motor neurone disease according to his wife.

Tony was chairman of Horsham Joggers [HJ] running club and formed the Joint User Group which overturned Horsham District Council’s decision to close Broadbridge Heath leisure centre.

He was awarded the community ‘good sport’ award in November 2012 by this newspaper for his work fighting the closure.

Tony’s wife Julia said: “[He] was born in Redhill in 1960, the third child of four siblings. He attended Reigate Grammar School and later moved to Horsham.

Tony trained as a joiner but turned his hand to a variety of building projects. His skill and practical application were shown to best advantage in the conversion of an old bungalow into a large four-bedroomed house, planning each step meticulously and always making sure that everything was completed perfectly.”

Tony joined HJ in 2004, and the club became a ‘big part of his life, Julia added.

She said: “Although he was a beginner at running, he was extremely competent and competitive. He went on to compete in countless races all over the world, including 10Ks, half marathons and marathons.

“His style was unique, often seen bouncing around Horsham with both feet off the ground, but fast nonetheless.

“Tony’s personal favourite event was the South Downs Way 100 mile relay.

“This is an invitation only event that HJ took part in many years ago but the invitation had then lapsed.

“Tony contacted the organisers and asked for HJ to be put back on the invitation list for 2012. Having completed the event in good time, the Joggers were then invited to enter a second team in 2013 and it has since become one of the highlights of the HJ calendar. Tony competed in the event from 2012 to 2016 and always said that it was one of the best day’s running he could ever have.”

Tony, who was ‘always keen to give something back and help others’, joined the committee and organised the yearly HJ Valentine’s race.

He was ‘a strong voice in helping to shape the club’s ongoing needs’, Julia added.

She said: “When Gordon Reay stood down as chairman in April 2011, there was really only one choice to replace him and Tony duly stepped up.

“Some say that Gordon could see into the future, as by October 2011 the club’s future was plunged into doubt when Horsham District Council announced the closure of Broadbridge Heath leisure centre with no provision made for the many clubs and community members who used it.

“However, there was a huge outpouring of objection and groundswell of public opinion, mainly led by Tony.

“He stood up to the authorities, got in touch with the various clubs using the leisure centre and formed a joint user group, aiming to overturn HDC’s decision.

“They marched on the council offices with homemade placards, demonstrated in the town centre at the weekend collecting petition signatures and the Joggers even ran a continuous relay from the town to the leisure centre, all to raise awareness of the plight of the running club, as well as the other affected clubs.”

When Tony won the County Times good sport award he said: “I feel like a bit of a fraud, it’s such a strange feeling, thank you.”

He later wrote on the HJ social media page: “Although I received the award, it’s for all the hard work put in by everyone who fought to keep the track and leisure centre.”

The work that Tony and the joint user group put into saving the meeting place went deeper than just the visible activity according to Julia.

She said: “He spent countless hours writing emails, researching the legal and moral objections and meeting users and councillors alike.

“By 2015 the council had reversed their decision and agreed to provide a new leisure centre (albeit smaller and for fewer user groups) and by October 2018 it was opened to the public, a ceremony which Tony attended.

“But he had to have the last word, writing to the West Sussex County Times the following week and reminding the Champagne-quaffing councillors that it was the user groups and members of the public who should be thanked for providing a much needed public resource.

“If you’ve been to The Bridge and used the new facilities, it’s fair to say that it probably wouldn’t be there without Tony Johnson’s tenacity and drive for justice.”

In July 2016 Tony was diagnosed with motor neurone disease.

Julia added: “Even this cruel disease couldn’t diminish his positive outlook or dampen his fighting spirit.

“He refused to sit at home and mope and bought an off-road wheelchair which he took onto his beloved South Downs.

“Tony passed away in July 2019. To say that his time with the running club was integral to its current success would be an understatement and they all owe a huge debt of gratitude to him for his leadership, straight-talking, dogged determination and useful inventions.”

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