I’ve often related a story of how my running career actually got started in high school. As an eighth grader that previous fall, I’d won the local Punt, Pass & Kick competition in the town of Elburn, Illinois, advancing to the regionals where I did well but not enough to win.
Still, the idea that I would someday be a football player was stuck in my head. My father did not like the idea. Not for me, or for any of my brothers. He viewed the game as a knee-wrecker, which at that time was fairly true. But there was more to it than that.
He also did not want us to become wrestlers. My dad liked a certain amount of grace to the sports he helped choose for his sons. Baseball and basketball were terrific. So was soccer, so back home in Pennsylvania my brothers had both played soccer, one as a defender, and the other as a goalie.
When we moved to Illinois the high school had no soccer or baseball. Only football and track & field. So my brother who was a junior when we left Pennsylvania had no other choice but to go out for cross country the fall of his senior year at a new school. He did pretty well for having had no previous experience in the sport. Then he ran track & field in the spring in lieu of baseball. The athletic director was the track coach and wanted no competition for athletes from the sport of baseball.
That was an unfair gig for my brother in several ways, but my father was not exactly sympathetic as I recall. That was not his style. His philosophy was “grow and adapt.” He thought it built character.
And so the same choice was made for me that freshman year in high school. We drove out to the campus and my father walked with me to the door of the locker rooms. “You’re going out for cross country,” he advised me sternly. “And if you come back out of that locker room, I’ll break your neck.”
As it turned out, that decision was the right one for me. I weighed about 126 lbs. on a 5’11” frame at the time. I might have survived playing football, but maybe not.
But after that first cross country practice, I knew the sport of running was for me. I loved the feeling of it. And with that drive came a modest degree of success. I made the varsity team as a freshman, led the varsity in points as a sophomore and then moved to another school my junior year to lead the team to a district title.
Beyond high school my running continued at Luther College, a school my father insisted I visit even after I had signed up at Augustana. My dad liked the sound of the wild country around Decorah. We drove through the hills of Wisconsin to northeast Iowa together and I recall a deep feeling of welcome sitting in the hippy cafe in downtown Decorah that day.
“You can cook wild game in the dorm around here,” my father counseled, and something in his message clicked. It also helped that Decorah with its hills and trees looked much like my birthplace in Upstate New York.
My father was more often right than wrong in his judgments and advice, but we had our differences for sure. The sometimes exasperating approach of challenging my perceptions caused some distance between us in the years of college and beyond. There were also anxieties stemming from a stern and sometimes physical upbringing that included thrashings if my father did not approve of the actions of his boys.
Some people sentimentally celebrate those corporal punishments as necessary to the upbringing of a generation. But I am not one of them. In raising my own children, I never felt the need to strike them. A couple attention-getting swats to their diapered or young bottoms, maybe, but perhaps three or four times in their entire lives was all that was necessary. They turned out wonderfully without having to beat the tar out of their bottoms or anything like it.
There was a certain level of anger that fueled our sporting endeavors as a result of the physical upbringing. We knew how to pass a licking on from one to the other within the brotherly hierarchy. We knew how to fight. There was also some cruel teasing involved.
All these are honest assessments of the period and time. They do not fault my father, whose own upbringing was absent both a mother and a father. His mother died from complications of cancer when he was just seven years old. His father struggled with financial and emotional problems through the Depression. Losing both a wife and a farm did not help the man.
So my father may have struggled for a role model by which to raise his own sons. Combined with the enormous financial ups and downs of the 1970s and 80s, there was plenty of insecurity to add to the mix.
But there was no lack of love. Even through my father’s family and work challenges he was fiercely committed to supporting each of his boys in their athletic endeavors. Like all good parents, he attended our meets and games, often yelling to us “Stay Loose!” as a way to connect with us on the field. He could detect the anxious minds at work in his boys, and wanted us each to realize that the best way to perform was to lose that nervousness and gain the strength of relaxation. But sometimes his chortling calls worked to the opposite effect. My brothers and I will still tease each other with the call to “Stay Loose!”
Yet my father really did care how we did. And that’s what counted most. He also loved a good game of catch with a baseball. We’d take turns throwing knuckleballs to each other. All his boys turned into good pitchers in the sport of baseball. But none of us ever topped the knuckleball my father threw to one of my brothers. It fluttered through the air and then sank from shoulder height to drop near his feet at the last minute. My father loved a good knuckleball. It was like fly-fishing in the side yard, more of an art than an act of sport.
My father was pretty swift of foot in his day. As a kid I recall challenging him to a footrace in our Pennsylvania yard and he took off with that weirdly smooth stride of his. There was no chance I could catch him. Perhaps my father might have made a pretty good runner had he been given the chance growing up.
Instead, he watched us all race at some point in our careers. All my brothers and I participated in track and field. Jim ran a 4:40 mile as a freshman. Gary long-jumped nearly 20 feet. Greg high-jumped 6’6″ and made it downstate.
I was a little too eager about the whole thing, high-jumping 6’1″ and triple jumping 40’4″ in an attempt to win points for the team in high school. All that as a distance runner? But my father never made me quit trying field events. Anything for the team, he agreed.
Most fondly, I recall the day our cross country team at Luther earned second place in the NCAA National Meet. My father and mother were both in attendance that day in Rock Island, Illinois, where the flat course circled around Arsenal Island. When it was all said and done, and our team pictures were taken, I walked over to my father and gave him a long hug. It was the first hug in a long while, as I recall, because kids in the 70s often ignored or resisted their father’s attentions.
And yet, the feel of your father’s arms around you when you return to those graces with a hug can be liberating indeed. I simply said, “Thanks, dad.” And he hugged me hard.
There were tears in his eyes, for he knew that there were struggles through those long miles of training. But this was something we could both share, an accomplishment.
My father passed away this weekend after twelve very long years of living with the effects of a stroke. He was eighty-nine years old, and had dealt with his circumstance of not being able to talk or walk very well for all those years. He still got up and swung his beloved golf clubs, and with one hand repaired and refurbished clubs which he lovingly gave to friends or family. My dad loved the game of golf and won his flight one year in the city tournament in St. Charles, Illinois. It was my job to take care of him in many ways once my mother died twenty years ago. I always felt like it was returning a favor.
I still think about the manner in which he addressed a problem with my track spikes in high school. The long miles and hard intervals on the track were causing a tightness in my left Achilles tendon, so my father set to work making a heel lift out of leather to glue into my shoe. It was just enough to take pressure off my heel for the remainder of the season. I recall looking into the heel of those adidas blue suede spikes and marveling at how he’d managed to make the pad smooth enough not to rub my heel.
That was my father, a man who made real wooden frames out of rescued barn wood to help me sell my paintings at a local restaurant willing to hang them on the wall. Of course one morning the nails gave out and a frame came crashing to the table, flipping pancakes in several directions. “Nothing’s perfect,” he told me.
He also gave me advice about my artwork that has never been forgotten, and yet not implemented enough in some ways, “Paint squirrels,” he told me. “People like stuff they recognize.”
He was right about many things in this life. We had our challenges but through thirteen years of caregiving to the man who raised me and my three brothers, it was an honor to provide that care back. Sometimes it was done impatiently I will admit, for the fatigue of caring for a parent can be exhausting. For me it never occurred in any sort of a void. While taking care of my dad, I also ushered my late wife through eight years of ovarian cancer survivorship. Being pulled in two or more directions was stressful.
But when I really needed to get away, I went out and ran or rode some miles to help put things in perspective. That was a gift that my father gave to me. He somehow knew that my mind would need that in life. So it is that I’m giving thanks in the long run. We love you dad, and we’ll miss you.
Stewart Kirby Cudworth was born in Upstate New York in January, 1926 and lived to 89 years old. He was a World War II Navy Veteran, avid golfer, visitor to garage sales and socializer who loved to sing with a beautiful tenor voice. He earned his engineering degree from Cornell University and worked for RCA, Sylvania, Belden and Anixter in his career.