By Gwen Rizzo
The polo community was rocked bytragedy on April 6 when Summerfield K. "Skeeter" Johnston III succumbed to injuries suffered in a fall during a practice match at his family's Everglades polo facility in Wellington, Florida. The team was preparing for its next outing in the 26-goal U.S. Open tournament hosted by the local International Polo Club Palm Beach the morning of April 4 when his horse fell on him. Skeeter was airlifted to the local trauma center with multiple injuries, including several broken bones and head trauma. He underwent surgery to reduce swelling. His injuries proved too severe, and he died two days later.
Skeeter was a leader both on and off the field. In 1997, Skeeter joined the family's Johnston Coca-Cola Bottling Group Inc. and served in several positions over the years.
The notable attribute of his private life was his devotion to all his family members and his involvement with and commitment to each of them. He loved hunting and fishing, both of which he pursued with professionalism and skill throughout the world.
He was deeply involved in polo, not only as an outstanding amateur player but as a leader in the sport in the United States. He was a governor at large of the United States Polo Association and co-founder of the newly formed North American Polo League. The league held its first official press conference just days before his death, announcing the league's launch. Skeeter was on a panel to explain the purpose of the league and to answer questions. According to the league's director of sales and marketing, Kevin Carlon, that day Skeeter was very excited the league was finally “official.”
The league intends to continue to follow Skeeter’s vision. The league’s executive director, Charles Smith, said: “Skeeter’s love for the game of polo was exemplified by his enthusiasm for the opportunities he saw for the NAPL. Skeeter saw the NAPL as a way to promote the sport to bring it to the national attention it deserved and a way to make the sport better and more competitive for all its participants. His dedication and drive to succeed was contagious and infected all who worked with him. His vision and insight will be sorely missed in the many business areas he touched, including the NAPL, but the league will go forward as planned, as Skeeter would have liked.”
His good friend and longtime polo pro, 8- goal Owen Rinehart, said: “The NAPL [was] very important to Skeeter. His vision [was] to take polo to another level. There is much room to grow the sport.”
On the field Skeeter carried an impressive 2-goal handicap as he led his Skeeterville polo team. The team was called Coca-Cola from 1997-1998, then changed to Everglades Polo until 2004, when he settled on Skeeterville. The team has competed in the U.S. Open since 1997, having reached the final three times. He played with his friend Rinehart regularly for the past 11 years. According to Rinehart, they also played together in a couple of tournaments when Skeeter was in business school. “It wasn’t like playing for him,” Rinehart said. “It was like playing with him—he was a great team player.”
Over the years Skeeter counted numerous victories, including the 26-goal $100,000 Gold Cup in 1988; the Cartier International Open in 1982; the USPA Heritage Cup twice; and the 2003 Hall of Fame Cup. In 2005, Skeeter was honored as Amateur Player of the Year by this magazine.
Rinehart said: “He loved the sport, as we all do. His father and grandfather introduced it to him when he was young, and he always loved it. But I think the horses were his favorite thing. Skeeter started from the ground up so he knew more about all aspects of horses and polo. He also learned a lot from Glen Hart, who he was very fond of.” Rinehart said off the field they both enjoyed talking about polo and horses.
Skeeterville won its first game in the U.S. Open 12-11 over Catamount in overtime. Skeeter played well and contributed two goals to the win. The team played its second game just two days after his death. Rinehart said: “The first game after he died was the hardest, most difficult game I have ever had to play in my life. He is proud of us for playing.” Skeeter’s groom, 2-goal Kalyn Marsh took his place. Marsh and the other Skeeterville players each wore a No. 1 on their jerseys, the position Skeeter always played, and players from both teams wore black armbands in Skeeter’s memory.
Later that afternoon, prior to the 3 p.m. match on the Stanford International Field, Elvio Serio rode Isabella and led Raba, Skeeter’s two favorite mares, onto the field. Skeeter’s boots were turned backwards in the stirrups on Raba’s saddle. It was a somber time for all.
Spirits were slightly higher a few days later at a celebration of Skeeter’s life. More than 1,300 people arrived at the Everglades Polo facility to remember Skeeter. A large white tent was erected at the far end of the very green polo field with two smaller tents perched nearby—a red one marked for the Skeeterville team, the other, a green one marked for Skeeter’s sister Gillian’s Bendabout team. However, on that muggy, overcast day there were no eager polo teams sitting in their respective tents and no polo was to be played. Instead, guests mingled, sharing stories of Skeeter and enjoying a presentation of photographs depicting the events and people in Skeeter’s life. Upon arrival, guests placed hats and shirts from various teams and clubs from around the country on a table. The Johnston family greeted guests with a smile, a hug and invited all to enjoy a traditional asado.
Vivid photos of Skeeter were on display, making the afternoon seem somewhat surreal, reminding everyone that Skeeter was not there to enjoy the camaraderie of so many of his friends and family. Skeeter’s father, Skey, said that his son would have liked the barbecue and would have appreciated that so many showed up to pay their respects for someone who will surely and sorely be missed by so many. Skeeter’s father consoled others with the thought that Skeeter died doing what he loved to do.
Polo players–people like Skeeter and his father—know and understand the hazards involved in playing polo. Playing polo can be a risky game of life or death—injury, in some form, is certain, and death, thank goodness, is rare. Skeeter embraced those risks and met all his challenges with courage, sportsmanship and honor. He was and will continue to be a role model for all polo players who mount up on a horse to play.
Skeeter was a businessman. He served in several management positions, including president of the Johnston Coca-Cola Bottling Group Inc.’s food and restaurant division and of its Australian subsidiary, WinPac Ltd; he was president of the Group’s Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Northwest in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and of Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Cleveland, Tennessee.
Following the merger of Johnston Coca- Cola Bottling Group with Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc, in 1991, he held a number of executive positions at CCE, including vice president of human resources; senior vice president and president of the Eastern North American Group, responsible for bottling operations in the Eastern United States; and executive vice president and chief strategy and business development officer. He retired from Coca-Cola Enterprises in February 2004 and has served as a member of its board of directors since 2004. Coca-Cola Enterprises is the largest bottler and distributor of Coca-Cola products in the world.
He was also chairman of the Krystal Co., which operates quick-serve restaurants throughout the Southeastern United States; and a member of the board of directors of SunTrust Bank of Chattanooga N.A.; MetalTek International Inc., a specialty metal casting company; Southern Screens Entertainment LLC, which conducts real estate development and operates multiscreen cinema houses in Argentina; eSkye Solutions Inc, a distributor of channel management software; and the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation.
He is survived by his wife, Leslie Buttram Johnston, and daughter, Louisa; his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Summerfield K. Johnston Jr.; sisters Katherine Johnston Tudor, Lavinia Johnston, Gillian Johnston; brother Robert Johnston; and his nieces and nephews.
Skeeter was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on January 8, 1954. He graduated from Bright School grammar school and Baylor School in Chattanooga, and from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. The family’s homes are in Palm Beach, Florida, and Big Horn, Wyoming. Skeeter’s family suggests that memorials for his life be sent to the Polo Training Foundation, 70 Clinton Street, Tully, New York, 13159, or to the charity of the donor’s choosing.