South Florida running icon John ‘Hans’ Huseby dies at 64

John ‘Hans’ Huseby and wife Laurie are shown at their FootWorks store in South Miami on May 8, 2008.
John ‘Hans’ Huseby and wife Laurie are shown at their FootWorks store in South Miami on May 8, 2008. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

An icon in the South Florida running community has died.

John “Hans” Huseby, who, along with his wife Laurie, created a culture of fitness and fun with the largest and most successful road race in the history of South Florida — the 26,000-strong Mercedes-Benz Miami Corporate Run — went to sleep Friday night and was found unresponsive on Saturday.

Huseby, a warm, outgoing, hard-working man whose FootWorks running store in South Miami is still the area’s nerve center for those who love to run, walk or just stay active, was 64.

A former competitive youth hockey player in Minneapolis, Huseby was extremely fit and a second-degree black belt in Shotokan karate, his passion besides family and FootWorks and running. He finished the 1981 Boston Marathon in a speedy 2 hours 55 minutes 10 seconds.

“A lot of us are getting old, so we just dream about it now,” Huseby, laughing, told the Miami Herald last year.

An autopsy will be done this week.

“He was my hero and my role model and I’ve always tried to live my life in a way that I thought he would want to live his,” said JP Huseby, 39, who assisted his parents in directing the Corporate Run series. “He was perfect in every way, more loving and compassionate and hard-working than anyone I’ve ever known.”

Huseby and his wife came to Miami from Minnesota in 1974 to work at the Earth Shoe Store, which was owned and operated by Laurie’s father. They bought the store and soon transformed it into FootWorks, recently adding a Miami Beach location.

“He took care of himself physically and always had a sunny attitude,” Laurie Huseby said of her husband of 43 years. “He just always found the good in everything, unlike me. We were a team. I was the practical one and he was the dreamer. He was ridiculously nice to everyone and made life better for so many people.”

Hans handled all the city logistics in terms of police and permitting and securing the venue for the Miami Corporate Run, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary on April 23 and has just renewed its title sponsorship with Mercedes-Benz through 2017.

The other Corporate Runs in the series are April 2 in West Palm Beach and April 15 in Fort Lauderdale.

Hans and Laurie Huseby were among the original founders of the Miami Running Club, a concept born in 1977 in their home in unincorporated Miami-Dade, just a block from South Miami.

Hans had a huge heart, and through his hard work the nonprofit TeamFootWorks has donated $1.8 million to charities since 1994.

On Halloween, he’d dress up as a clown and greet children trick-or-treating near his store.

South Miami Commissioner Josh Liebman ran his 100th marathon in Miami this year. He was close friends with Hans.

“A light went out in South Florida,” Liebman said. “There will be a ripple effect and Hans will be sorely missed for many years. My phone hasn’t stopped ringing. Everyone is better for having known him.”

Rick Stern, known among runners as the official timer for most major road races here, said he was still “in shock” Monday. It was Hans Huseby who got Stern started in his business.

“I drove to FootWorks in 1977, walked into the store and met this guy with a big smile resoling sneakers with the smell of glue everywhere,” Stern recalled. “He handed me a Road Runners Club of America book and said, ‘Sit and read it and I’ll answer your questions.’ He sure did, for an hour and a half.

“People don’t realize the background stories that go into these events and the people like Hans who have been there over the years to make them possible.”

The immensely popular Corporate Run, which turns Bayfront Park into a joyous tent city one day a year every spring, was born as the Manufacturers Hanover Corporate Challenge with just over 1,300 runners in 1985.

Hans Huseby was elated the run still thrives.

“It reaffirms what we’ve been saying for years,” Huseby said this year. “The Mercedes-Benz Corporate Run can do wonderful things for your employees: camaraderie, team spirit, better health for the individual and team.

“A little bit of fitness goes a long way.”

Fellow Miami running trailblazer Frankie Ruiz, Belen Jesuit cross-country coach and chief running officer for the Life Time Miami Marathon and Half Marathon, wrote a touching tribute on Facebook.

“I wanted to take a moment to let you know how incredibly indebted I am to Hans,” Ruiz wrote to Laurie Huseby. “…There are hundreds of thousands that have used running to better their lives in South Florida and many don’t know that it was due in large part [to] the quiet hard work of a humble man in South Miami… Thank you Hans for serving Miami and for allowing us to stand on your shoulders to continue to build on what you helped start.”

Besides his son JP, Huseby is survived by daughter Kimberly Kivitis of Washington, D.C.; sons Jessiah of St. Augustine and Kristoffer of Miami; and six grandchildren.

He also is survived by sisters Leah Jo Huseby and Kris Faruq of Minneapolis and brother Peter Krieger of Duluth, Minnesota.

A celebration of Huseby’s life is planned from 6-9 p.m. Wednesday outside the FootWorks store on Sunset Drive between Southwest 57th Avenue (Red Road) and Southwest 57th Court. The public is welcome.

The family is asking that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the South Miami Police Explorers. For more information, email cjohnson@southmiamifl.gov.

Related stories from Miami Herald