The circumstances by which I wound up running for Luther College were serendipitous. By the end of senior year in high school, I’d applied and was accepted to Augustana College in Rock Island. During my visit out there, I ran with the guys and got a taste of the difference between high school and college running. But there wasn’t much. Running is running. You go out with the guys, try to keep up, and do your best.
But my grades weren’t stellar in high school, and Augustana accepted my application with a caveat that I’d be on academic probation for that first term of college. That turned me off. My native resistance to authority and naturally competitive mink-like character was exacerbated by life with a sometimes exasperating father who was frustrated by the fact that some of his sons struggled with grades just like he did at Cornell University.
But I’ve figured all that out over many decades, and I’ve come to realize that ADHD runs in our family, along with anxiety and some depressive tendencies. Oh, that someone could have helped me recognize that much earlier in life. It all made decision-making that much harder.
In 1975, I was a ship adrift when my friend Paul Morlock announced that he’d be attending Luther College. I visited the campus that summer with my father and fell in love with the place. Back home, we canceled the Augustana application and they didn’t seem to mind. They even sent my $100 application fee back. The very next year, a teammate and close friend of mine from St. Charles HS also applied to Augie, then changed his mind to attend Luther as well. They did not refund his $100 application fee.
I’ve considered what it might have been like to attend Augie because I got to know many of the runners there over the years. I ran against many of them during high school, including Chuck Christensen of Dekalb and Dave Scott from Fremd. Thanks to our competitive connections over those four years, a few Augie runners even showed up at Luther to hang out and go drinking. Small Christian colleges with decent running traditions tend to attract the same kind of people. So while we were clearly rivals, we also understood that as programs and individuals we really weren’t that different.
Plus the Augustana coach Paul Olson was a Luther graduate. I liked Olson when I met him first in the spring of 1975, and his Augustana program turned out many fine runners; Dan Copper, John Hammermeister, and many others.
He and Kent Finanger ran similar cross country programs, and Olson coached track at Augustana with his wild-maned Fred Whiteside as an assistant coach. But there was one aspect of Olson that I did not appreciate until I heard him speak at a Luther track reunion two years ago. His eloquence and breadth of thought impressed me deeply. He would have been a great English professor and possible mentor to me if I’d attended Augustana. That could have been life-changing as well.
I have a close friend that wasn’t a runner who attended Augie. I consider him one of the most insightful and best-educated people I know. He majored in English at Augustana and also has a wonderful grasp of history, religion, and many other subjects. I did well enough in college with a 3.1 GPA, and Luther took a much more relaxed attitude toward my 24 ACT score (the school’s average) and said, “Your many activities indicate you’ll do well in college.” Talk about a sense of approval…
My point here is that I might have thrived at Augustana as well as Luther College. My own daughter elected to attend Augie after earning her Associate degree in photography and communications from College of Dupage. Unfortunately, she was going to school during a period when my wife was going through intense treatment for ovarian cancer. Then, my daughter’s credits did not transfer directly to Augustana as promised. Her experience, as a result, was less than ideal. But I still hold the college in high esteem.
There were a few other possible college choices as well. Most notably, I received a recruiting letter from Coach Al Carius at North Central College during my junior year in high school. Sadly, my impression of the school was not based on knowledge of the running program, but on a judgment of their facilities. That same year at Districts, I’d tried to visit the bathroom in the fieldhouse only to find a long line waiting for a lone toilet in the middle of the room. I swore to myself at that moment, “I am never going to attend this school.”
These days, North Central has some of the finest facilities in all the nation. The school has hosted national championships for indoor and outdoor track, and Al Carius was named the Coach of the Century for his success at the Division III level.
A few years after graduating from Luther, I wrote an article about North Central and Al Carius for the Illinois Runner, a monthly newspaper published by Rich Elliott, whom I’d gotten to know through the road racing circuit. I wrote for the paper on a regular basis, and even designed the logo.
Having learned far more about Carius over the years than I originally knew, I was excited to visit the program and go for a run with the crop of athletes he was coaching in 1984. The banter and teasing during the run was so familiar. One of the less-speedy guys on the team was leading the pack that day, and the better guys were making light of the situation. It felt like I knew everyone and was a member of the team. I realized that I could have fit right in with the North Central program too. I might have struggled to make the Top Seven all four years, but by the time I was a senior at Luther, I was running times equal to their fourth through seventh men. So who knows? That’s an alternative reality consideration as well.
I did set my 5000 PR at an All-Comer’s meet on North Central’s excellent all-weather track in 1984. Jim Spivey won the event that night in around 14:00 flat. I finished at 14:47. The race was held at midnight due to the number of competitors that showed up for the meet. It took hours to run heats of events like the 400 and 800. But I sat there waiting for a chance to run because I knew that I was fit and wanted to run against some of the best area competitors. I was probably around 10th-14th place, but I didn’t care. I’d run a PR that night. That was all that mattered.
That same summer, I showed up at the qualifying meet for the Illinois Prairie State Games. Anxious and eager to make the team, I poked around with the organizers and the coaches scheduled to run the team; Al Carius and Joe Newton of York. Both were known for their powerful motivational abilities, but with somewhat different styles. In any case, I think they found my nervous questions to be a bit revealing about my personality and perspectives. So perhaps it would have been helpful during college to have the likes of Al Carius to cut through my anxieties and build self-esteem. He did it for many runners over the years.
We’re all pulled and pushed by forces we don’t always recognize in life. During college at Luther, my brother Jim wrote me a letter wishing that he’d talked to the coaches at Millersville, the college he attended. Jim was friends with Jeff Bradley, one of the best runners to emerge from that D3 school. After moving to Paoli, Pa., after college, we raced in a ten-miler that he won. I ran 54:00 on an immensely hilly Lancaster Country course where Millersville runners such as Alan Treffinger also competed. whom I competed against in national cross country meets.
Recently, I had conversations with a former St. Charles runner Greg Birk, who half-jokingly asked me, “Why didn’t I try to get you to come to Wabash?” Birk was recently installed in the athletic Hall of Fame at that school. His career in marathons is prodigious, competing all over the world. But frankly, I was a bit intimidated by Greg as well as his training buddy Tom Burridge, the Batavia sensation who went to the University of Kentucky and ran a 13:45 track 5K and went on to set the American record in the half marathon.
And that’s where my pontification about alternative realities comes to an abrupt halt. The program at Kentucky was rife with Illinois runners such as Craig Young and Ron Ackerman, my former teammate at Kaneland High school. I watched Ron run the first leg of a 4 X 1-mile relay at Drake. He handed off at 4:01. I will never claim that I could have run for a program like Kentucky.
I guess I feel justified in asking “what might have been” considering the move that I was somewhat forced to make in the middle of my high school career when my family moved from Elburn to St. Charles.