Barbara Huebner

Julia Emmons: Charming and Relentless

Barbara Huebner
Julia Emmons: Charming and Relentless


Rarely a day went by in her 22 years as director that Julia Emmons didn’t think about the AJC Peachtree Road Race. As if taking a photo from 20,000 feet, she contemplated it as a whole; as if running alongside her mythical Dorothy and Frank, she considered it from the ground up. So passionately focused was she that in the weeks leading up to the Peachtree, you could be standing in her office and she wouldn’t even notice you were there.

Even a dozen years after retiring from the helm in 2006, Emmons speaks of the race with passion. Then on July 4, she leaves town.

“I still care, but the only gift I can really give my successors is to get out of the way,” she explained. “The best thing I can do is not be there.”

Except that it’s not the only gift she left them. And – as the longest-serving race director in the history of the Peachtree – she is indeed still very much there.

“While Julia now chooses to celebrate her Fourth of July away from Atlanta and shies away from any formal roles at Atlanta Track Club, she is always willing to answer my questions,” said Rich Kenah, who became the Club’s executive director and Peachtree race director in 2014. “I count myself lucky to get her counsel. Tim Singleton and dozens of other volunteers had the vision for the Peachtree, but it was Julia who nurtured it from adolescence into adulthood and an event that reflects all of Atlanta. 

“And by the way, we’ll be keeping her in town for the 50th Running next year so she can get the accolades she deserves.”

A year or two after moving to Atlanta in 1968, the running novice was persuaded to do her first race, three laps around a reservoir as part of an Atlanta Track Club series. Emmons finished last, but was awarded a medal as the first woman to cross the line and never forgot the respect she was paid despite being the slowest runner on the course. She joined the Club, and in 1972 would finish second in her Peachtree debut. She would go on to run 20 marathons, with a personal best time of 2:59:26.

By the mid-1980s, Emmons was on the Club’s Board of Directors when she stepped up to serve as interim executive director after the Club had seen five directors in 10 years. After several other candidates reportedly rejected offers, the “interim” was dropped and the Emory University associate professor of library science and management whose Ph.D. was on power in the court of Charles II and whose silver Honda bore the bumper sticker “I’d rather be reading Jane Austen” became the first woman to lead the organization and, by extension, direct its signature race.

 “It was the first time in my life that I had a job I absolutely adored,” said Emmons, described as charming but relentless and whose grace with the language rivals her ability to build bridges. “It was the first jacket I ever wore that fit correctly.”

Although she sensed concern that “Librarian to Direct Peachtree Road Race” was not the headline everyone might have wanted, she said there was little overt pushback from the mostly male Peachtree committee. In retrospect, she said, they probably thought she wouldn’t last long. “I won some over,” she recalled. “Others left.”

Winning people over was Emmons’ modus operandi. The daughter of a diplomat, she had lived all over the world as a child – Malaysia, Ireland, Korea, Australia, Spain, France – changing not only schools but societies every few years and learning how to get along in all of them. It was a skill, said her son, Eric, “that she had to develop.”

So she got out into the city and its diverse communities and constituencies. She reached out to churches. If she heard that someone was angry about something, she paid a visit to find out why and what she could do about it.

“My approach was more head-butting, but Julia went in there and negotiated,” said Bob Varsha, a member of the board who had served two stints as race director, in 1979 and 1983.  “She would just get people in a room and work things out.”

As Emmons told the AJC for a 1993 story, “We have to be visible, but I think people have to understand what we do and why we do it. Essentially, everything we do is dependent on community goodwill. You don’t send 45,000 people down the street without a lot of goodwill.”

Still, she said recently, if she had to make an enemy to protect the race, she would do it.

“I was like a lioness protecting her cubs sometimes,” said the 5-foot, 2-inch, 98-pound force.

Julia Emmons (1).jpg

During Emmons’ tenure, the Peachtree grew from 25,000 runners to 55,000. The first leap, from 25,000 to 40,000, came in 1990 when race organizers realized they were turning away as many runners as they were accepting.

“I don’t think anyone in risk management would have thought it was a good idea,” said Emmons, calling it perhaps her biggest gamble as race director. “The race could have been toast.”

In search of a way to make it work, Emmons traveled to Colorado to see how the Bolder Boulder 10K managed the “wave start” it had instituted in 1983.

She was excited when she came back, recalled Penny Kaiser: Now she knew how they could do it.

Kaiser and Emmons met midway through one of the first road races Kaiser ever ran, when she caught Emmons as they were running up a hill. “She looked at me like, ‘Who are you?’ then took off and beat me,” said Kaiser. “I’ll never forget that look.”

She went on to become Emmons’ first hire at Atlanta Track Club and the perfect foil: where Emmons was impulsive, Kaiser was more deliberate; where Emmons tended to skip over some of the particulars, Kaiser nailed them down – with the help of a famous fictional couple. Emmons makes it clear that Kaiser was a key to the Club’s success; the two still meet every Tuesday morning for coffee.

With the help of Kaiser, Emmons created imaginary characters -- Dorothy and Frank -- who she used to envision the experience of a back-of-the pack runner at the Peachtree. That visualization helped change the Peachtree into an event beloved by everyone from elite runners to casual walkers.

“Julia is not a detail person at all,” said Kaiser. “‘Dorothy and Frank’ made her see the details because their experience IS the details. They were her model for every aspect of directing the race.”

In their way, Emmons WAS Dorothy, finishing last around that reservoir but being made to feel as if she belonged.

“She wanted to return that [feeling],” said Janet Monk, now the Club’s manager of special projects. “If you’re last, we’ll take as good care of you as the frontrunners.”

Raised in a family that believed in service, Emmons’ interests and leadership extended far beyond the walls of 3097 E. Shadowlawn, the Club’s former headquarters. Over the years, she was involved in theater, the symphony and museums, among other cultural and civic institutions. But everything she took on did something to widen her network, cement relationships and make the Peachtree stronger. In 1997 she ran for, and won, an at-large seat on the Atlanta City Council. There, she focused her four-year term on issues affecting pedestrian access and safety, not unrelated to the key Club mission to help create an active and healthy city.

In the wider running world, Emmons directed the 1996 Olympic Marathon and Race Walks when the Games were held in Atlanta – giving her stipend to the Club staff for the extra work they took on while she oversaw the once-in-a-lifetime project – and served as assistant coach for endurance events for Team USA at the 2004 Athens Olympics. From 1990-1996, she was chair of Women’s Long Distance Running for USATF, and was vice president of Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) for two years in the late 1980s.

When Emmons announced her retirement, she told the AJC that there was never a single day she hadn’t relished going to work.

Jeff Galloway, a 1972 Olympian and winner of the first Peachtree, praised her reign. “Julia took over the race at a point when it was struggling,” he said in that same newspaper story. “… she came in and stabilized it and eventually made it the major fitness event in Atlanta and nationally, and to some extent worldwide.”

1972 Julia Emmons.jpg

In 2006, at her final Peachtree, Emmons was presented the Phoenix Award by Atlanta’s then-mayor, Shirley Franklin (with whom she ran the Peachtree several times after motivating her to start running as exercise), and in 2017 was inducted into the Atlanta Hall of Fame – her eighth Hall of Fame induction overall.

Her son – who distinctly remembers his pride in seeing his mother on the huge Peachtree post-race stage, hoisting a megaphone near a row of crystal peaches – shrugs off the fuss. “It doesn’t surprise me that she’s getting awards,” said Eric Emmons, a venture capitalist in Boston who said the no. 1 lesson his mother taught him was, simply, to always do his best.

For many years since relinquishing her Club post Emmons made jewelry, dramatic pieces hand-crafted of gemstones and sterling silver embossed with antique lace. Only recently has she given that up, saying that she isn’t able to do it often enough to keep her skills at the level she feels is necessary. (In other words, she’s no longer doing her best.) She remains dedicated to her volunteer position as a docent at the High Museum.

Fitness remains a priority. A year ago, Emmons – now 77 – began to lift weights with a personal trainer (“29, sweet face, steely eyes, unforgiving, impervious to whining”). She swims. She has practiced Pilates for decades. She recently bought a bicycle. But she no longer runs.

“It’s nice to be doing things my younger self did not do,” she said.

When Emmons’ father was a young man, he was part of a mountain-climbing expedition that climbed higher than any Americans had ever gone. Seventy-five years later, shortly after her retirement, Emmons and her sister, Louise, retraced the route Arthur Brewster Emmons III took to get to Minya Konka, a 24,790-foot peak in Tibet, hoping to at least lay eyes on the mountain. (Only two members of the party summited; Emmons stayed behind at the last camp and eventually had to have all of his toes amputated due to frostbite.)

The hike was a tough challenge, with the tiny Emmons dropping back as she battled through snow up to her knees. But she finally saw the mountain, thanks in part to a Sherpa making footprints in the snow ahead of her as she went.

It was about time Emmons got to follow in someone else’s footsteps after leaving a lifetime of her own.