Forty years at Curtis Arboretum.

2013 September 7

     How many of you have attended any of my math talks at Cheltenham High School? (Don't worry, it's on point.)

     Former Principal Joseph Rodgers passed away recently and I'd like to remember him for a moment. If I have my dates right, he was our principal from 1987 through 2004. He was a true fan of our high school and I met him a few times, once here at our alumni run, in 1995 I think, and once or twice at my math talks. He wasn't there to hear what I had to say, as interesting as it may have been, but to watch the students in the classroom and how they interacted with their guest speaker. He was a champion for the high school and a champion in many ways and he will be missed.

     How many of you are running your first season on the Cheltenham Cross-Country team? Good for you! We have something special here and I'd like to talk about that.

     We were an ordinary cross-country team, or worse. We ran our repeats and our hills and managed to run a two-and-ten season. (That's two wins and ten losses.) Even our course was ordinary: start at the baseball field, around outside the bleachers, behind the tennis courts and the baseball field, across the campus, around the parking lot and the hockey field, back behind the baseball field and the tennis courts, and a lap around the track. Our coach was desperate. I know he was desperate because he recruited the slow, orange-hair runner I was back then.

     The next season was not good, zero wins and fourteen losses. Six of those races were shutouts, and not in a good way. A decent coach looks for ways to get his athletes running their hearts out and puking their guts out for the cause of winning the next meet, or at least not losing by so much.

     A great coach decided there's something more he can do. He read the great coaches in print, Bill Bowerman, Percy Cerutty, and Arthur Lydiard. Then he did the greatest thing of all, he found a local coach, not in our league, and, ahem, not in our league. I guess he figured the worst Coach Donnelly could do was laugh at him, right?

     Well, Tom Donnelly didn't laugh, not even a chuckle. Instead he gave two pieces of advice. The first was easy, get your guys running more. Never mind how fast, how hard, how hilly, just run mileage. The orange-hair runner ran seventy-five miles a week that August and came back leaner and meaner. So did his teammates.

     The other advice is where the magic is. He inspired our coach to help us form a team. You know, "There is no I in TEAM," but you also know, "There is an I in WIN." How do you get guys to give up their egos for the greater good? And here is the magic: we didn't give up ourselves in any way, somehow we became part of something in addition to ourselves. The unified team was like having an extra runner with us.

     Coach Sexton provided the impetus, but the energy had to come from us. He inspired us to run more, to do more, and to become more. We took the bait and the result was a real sense of team unity.

     We celebrated our newfound strength and fitness with a new course, right here at Curtis Arboretum. Start at the big tree down to the stone and around the pine tree around the corner up to the big tree again for the quarter mile, then down across the little red bridge up the big hill to the little tree and continue up to Curtis Hall.

     The new course is three miles, hilly, longest in the league, and, back in those prehistoric days, nearly all tree covered. We never lost a runner to a pterodactyl, not one.

     Our first race at Curtis the orange-hair runner, our fifth man, came across the stone bridge at two miles behind one of his competitors. The guy throws his hands in the air like gis (that's how we talk in Philadelphia-speak, like gis), he says, "Oh my god!" and just starts walking. The orange-hair runner goes past him and it's enough: Cheltenham twenty-seven, Holy Ghost Prep twenty-eight. I can tell you pride was in the air that day.

     A few days before our race with Upper Dublin there were six of us running abreast at Valley Green. This was our first season running at Valley Green. We had done Pain Hill and Slalom and were heading to run Giant Rex (lucky not to meet his namesake in those prehistoric times) and we came across a struggling runner coming towards us, crawling along like a worm with his face in the dirt. "Wher're you from?" we asked and he answered "Upper Dublin." The next struggling runner-worm coming our way got the same treatment. "Wher're you from?" we asked and he answered "Upper Dublin." The next the same, and the next. Each knew where we were from because we told them we were from Cheltenham! Maybe that won us the race, maybe we would have won anyway, but pride was in the air that day, and when we beat them a few days later.

     We upset Norristown and Methacton and a few others along the way. Pride was in the air.

     The orange-hair runner was giving one of his now-famous math talks. Four math classes were crammed into Room 209 and there's another story I can tell about that lecture some other time. It was the day of the Abington meet and pride was in the air. The blackboard had an assortment of X's and Y's, Greek betas and gammas, and even a few Hebrew alephs. Three words on the chest and three words on the top of the blackboard were "Cheltenham Cross Country" and "Roast the Ghost." We didn't, not that day, but we gave them a race.

     We had a winning season, six wins and six losses. After the previous year, six-and-six was a winning season. Pride was definitely in the air at the banquet, which, I think, was at the Trautwein home that year.

     The light of our pride hasn't dimmed since then. That was 1973, forty years ago. I was really here then and I really ran this course then and the pride we felt is pride I feel in my team here, not just occasionally, but every time I think of running or cross country or sports or Cheltenham. Season after season, team after team, year after year, decade after decade, this program represents values I'm proud to call my own. I'm proud of my team and I'm proud of our coaches and I'm proud of all the young men who have run here.

     For Lee Moskowitz, for Mike Berry, for Dave Sacks, and for Jake Berkowitz, I'm going to run the best I can today. It may not be very fast, but it will be an honest effort. I'm also going to add Joseph Rodgers to my list today for all he did for my high school and my pride in it.

     Look up! Clear skies, course in good shape (I hope we're all in good shape), not a raptor in sight. So good luck, run well today, and run with my pride forever and always.

     Thank you.



thirty-six-years remarks, 2009 September 6
thirty-years remarks, 2003 September 6
twenty-five-years remarks, 1998 September 12


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