Following high school graduation, the pressure to find a summer job and earn “money for college” entered the picture for the first time. I stumbled around the first few weeks looking for who-knows-what kind of job, then got offered a chance to be an assistant coach for the St. Charles Track Club.
The work paid $500 for six weeks of work. That sounded like a ton of money to me in those days. I’d signed up for Augustana College after visiting the campus earlier that year in track. I ran with the Augie guys who took me for a five-mile run around Rock Island, then did some kind of interval test on the track facing the railroad tracks and highway to the north. No one went easy on me. It felt like a test of some sort.
My father was the one that drove me out to the Quad Cities. He waited in the car while all this was going on. During the visit I met Coach Paul Olson. I remember liking the guy, and we had a little talk. A few weeks later I received a letter of acceptance from Augustana, but the letter said, “You will be on academic probation the first term…” I didn’t like the sound of that.
So I sat on the letter knowing I’d at least gotten into college somewhere. We also visited Illinois Wesleyan that year, whose square-ended indoor track did not seem so great. So for the time being, it was Augie for me.
Summer track world
Not knowing how else to approach the big changes to come, I retreated back into the cozy and familiar world of coaching summer track. There were great boy and girl athletes in the club, including Mark Claypool, the Kaneland runner who won national AAU titles. I once did a workout with him in which he gave me 25 meter head starts while he ran 200 meter repeats. He still ran me down. Later in his career, he pumped out a 46.8 400 meters or somesuch fast time for the University of Illinois.
The littlest athletes were great fun to coach as well. We had a team of nearly 100 kids, traveling around to meets in Moline, Bloomington-Normal, Sterling, Belvidere and other cities. I was secretly smitten with a few of the female athletes my age, but knew that my role as a coach was to stay objective and help them any way I could. Still, it was summer, and the short shorts of that era didn’t make it easy to hold back the hormones coursing through my veins.
It helped that the head coach by then was Carol Rosene. She had taken over the club from Trent Richards, my high school cross country and track coach, and threw her heart and soul into the program. Her husband Bob Rosene was a blind runner of some renown. His dog ran with him in many events.
Coach or athlete?
Sometimes I’d choose to race in those summer meets, but I was never fit enough to make much impact. I recall running a 4:40 mile in the blazing heat on that wide-open track at Belvedere. When I got done, I swore never to race the rest of the summer. I don’t think I did. But my rival from Burlington Central, John Rath, kept on racing and getting better. He was a quick little bugger in the mile. His times dropped into the low 4:20’s as the summer went on. As I recall, he advanced to nationals and did quite well. I secretly hated him for that.
Meanwhile a coach from that part of the county named Mr. Riley came down to help out the program. He mainly coached the girls in many events, especially the high jump, where athletes like Andra Olson and the irrepressible Kelly Murphy won meets on a regular basis. We also had a spunky young athlete from a gymnastics background who jumped 5’8″. She’d run up to the bar and you’d think “that’s too high for her” but she’d bend like a licorice stick and come down in that shredded foam pit with another successful attempt. Our equipment wasn’t always the best, but we made it work.
The other guy that helped coach summer track was my close friend Rob Walker. We’d shared our high school junior and senior year together, and he would go on to a career in sports facilities management. But we coached girls basketball together during the winter of our senior year. I learned much from his measured approach and commitment to the kids. His little brothers ran for the St. Charles Track Club and Rob was an exceptional influence on kids of all ages.
We also traveled to Chicago to run in inner city meets that were all-day affairs where the summer sun burned so deep into your brain you’d feel like a creature from another planet by the end of the day. I recall admiring the sweat-soaked foreheads of the black head coaches running those inner city teams. Some of them were former Olympians giving their time to coach kids.The weren’t all the picture of fitness, yet they seemed indefatigable, guiding those kids in sprint heats all day long. Their dedication and stamina was tremendous.Meanwhile, I’d be hiding in the shade whenever I could.
Our band of mostly blonde-headed little white kids ran around like little wisps of suburban fury and the entire Chicago track scene had a carnival feel. Years later, as a father, I took my extremely blonde-headed, six-year-old daughter to a track meet where she ran a series of races and sat down amongst a crowd of same-aged black girls talking and chatting the day away. She was fascinated with their social dynamics, listening intently to their conversations and laughter. My daughter was no slow-poke, but she’d run enough races to surmise, in her own six-year-old mind, what she thought about the day. “Daddy,” she turned to me and said, with positive and open honesty. “Black girls are faster than white girls.” In that moment, I didn’t disagree.
Coaching kids that summer between my senior year in high school and freshman year in college was indeed a formative experience. As mid-July approached, the pending need to prepare for college arrived. I learned that my close friend and high school teammate Paul Morlock had committed to attend Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. “You should check it out,” he told me. “It’s really beautiful up there.”
For reasons that only my father understood at the time, he agreed that it would be a good idea to visit Luther. We piled into our giant white Buick LeSabre and drove the back roads through southwestern Wisconsin to arrive in Decorah late on a summer July morning. The sun was shining brightly, and the quaint downtown looked like a picture postcard.
We sat down for lunch before driving up to campus. The hippy-style restaurant we chose had open seating. I noticed a set of Luther athletes sitting next to us. “Hi there,” I told them. “I’m visiting Luther. I’m a runner.”
The guys laughed some, then one of them pointed at a blonde and lean figure at the far side of their table. “So is he,” they informed me. Indeed. It turned out to be John Jorgenson, a recent All-American in the 440. We talked a bit and he encouraged me to sign on. “You don’t want to go to Augustana,” he contended. “You’ll like it here better.”
The Luther cross country coach Kent Finanger was not in town that day, so I didn’t have a chance to meet him in person. But my father was so impressed with the look and feel of Luther, he worked to convince me that it would be a great place to be. “You could cook a wild game dinner in the dorm,” he enthused, looking around at the hills and wild areas surrounding Decorah. “Your birdwatching would be great!”
A week later, I received a letter of acceptance for Luther, along with a financial aid package that was a bit better than what Augustana offered. Best of all, there would be no academic probation for me. The letter stated: “Based on your involvement in extracurricular activities, we think you’ll do fine as a student here at Luther College.”
We sent a letter of declination to Augustana that day. They actually refunded my $100 application fee. I was admittedly no great loss to their academic prowess. My C+ grade point average was not anything to brag about. But Luther wanted me, with no strings attached. So from that point on, I was a Luther College Norseman, whatever that would come to mean.
A few days later, we received a letter stating that my first college roommate would be a Decorah native by the name of Keith Ellingson. He was also a cross country runner, the letter said. My mother insisted that I should call him and ask if he’d like to purchase matching bed covers. After I talked with him a few minutes, I brought up that subject and Keith was like, “Sure, whatever.” I hung up aghast that my mother suggested such weirdness. But sure enough, our bedcovers matched the day we both showed up for campus and that first cross country practice in August of 1975. Little did we know how many ways our lives would match in the future.