TERRE HAUTE —
Old stories bounced about like cinders on a track as former champions came to town.
Growing inside the Terre Haute Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Indiana Association of Track & Field and Cross Country Museum is lined with pictures of Hoosier champions and memorabilia. Friday, on the eve of the state’s high school cross country championships hosted in Terre Haute, the museum served as an open house for visiting athletes, complete with past champions of their sport.
Greg Bell hung out with others near the entrance that afternoon. Just a few feet away, a replica of his Olympic gold medal-winning long jump was constructed for all to experience. On the floor, a small wooden square with his footprint marks the spot from whence he would have jumped that day in Australia. And 25 feet, 81⁄4 inches west sits another wooden square marking where his feet landed. The distance he leapt in 1956, when seen on the ground, is amazing, Dave Patterson remarked.
“It’s pretty cool hanging out with these guys,” the bureau’s executive director said, surrounded by other track and field champions.
Patterson hosted the open house as an opportunity for high school athletes and their families to meet Olympic-caliber champions who, like themselves, all hail from Indiana.
Marshall Goss, former track and field coach at Indiana University, said organizers of the museum hope to not only honor the sport, but to recognize the stories of Hoosier athletes, which are part of the state’s history. Because, as he explained, long before Michael Phelps was a splash in the pool, Lafayette’s Ray Ewry ruled the world of jumping.
Between 1900 and 1908, Ewry won the gold medals in each of the high, long and triple jump events. A brief attempt at hosting the Olympics every two years was made in 1906, meaning Ewry won three gold medals in the 1900, 1904, 1906 and 1908 games, Goss explained. More remarkable yet was the fact that he was an orphan, and a childhood accident had doctors believing he’d never walk as an adult, let alone go on to win 12 Olympic gold medals.
“These are some of the stories we’re trying to capture in the Hall of Fame,” he said, remarking at how relevant those lessons of perseverance can be to young people.
Patterson echoed those comments, noting how successful many of the athletes went on to be after their competition days.
“What I’ve found is their greatness doesn’t end at the track,” he said, crediting the discipline of an athlete as a very transferable attribute.
Bell, a Garfield High School graduate, was actually raised in a converted chicken coop shared with his parents and eight siblings during the Great Depression. Friday, he recalled how one of his elementary school teachers informed people that “colored kids couldn’t make higher than a C” in school.
“And in her class, they couldn’t,” the retired dentist laughed.
But Bell didn’t only graduate high school, he competed on behalf of the U.S. Army, Indiana University and ultimately the U.S. Olympic team in the 1956 Summer Games in Melbourne, Australia. Later, he graduated from dental school and has since become a published author.
“People ask me if there’s anything I’d go back and change and I say no. All those things are a part of who I became,” he said.
Back in those days, tracks were made of cinders and jumpers landed in the hard dirt. Eugene Yates, a four-time state high school champion in the 4 x 880, recalled losing one of his shoes in the middle of a race in 1938. For about 700 yards he ran the cinder track full speed, filling one foot with the sharp, black chips.
“That cinder track kind of chews up your feet,” he laughed, also recalling his days on Indiana’s first All-Star Basketball Team and the first Indiana-Kentucky boys matchup.
After graduating from Anderson High School in 1940, Yates attended Ohio State University on a track scholarship, taking a brief break to serve in the U.S. Army airborne division during World War II, where he earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart before returning home to graduate in 1947.
NFL fans might know his grandson, T.J. Yates, a quarterback with the Houston Texans.
Goss pointed out that Indiana has produced 42 track and field Olympians over the years, and each has a story worth telling. Actor James Pierce, known as “Tarzan” to movie fans of another era, once broke the IU record for discus while playing football there as a native of Freedom, Ind. And before Lee Calhoun won gold medals in the 1956 and 1960 Olympic Games, he was a student at Gary Roosevelt High School who struggled to finish in the top five in his event, the 110-meter high hurdles.
“These are the stories we tell the kids when they come in,” Goss said, emphasizing his hope that the museum remain as it is, free of admission to the public.
Brian Boyce can be reached at 812-231-4253 or firstname.lastname@example.org.