By Lee Walter
Oftentimes at graduation, classmates promise to keep in touch. "Friends for life", as it were. Just as often, however, life gets in the way, and even the strongest of bonds can evaporate before even being fully realized.
At Eastern Connecticut State (College) University, there remains a group of cross country and track & field alumni who have managed to stay in regular contact and have had get-togethers at least once per year for upwards of 40 years.
As members of this fraternity currently contemplate retirement (several already having acted upon it) and are formulating plans to relocate to warmer climates, the group may soon be unable to gather regularly.
The head coach of this group was John Keleher, who was the first head coach in the history of the cross country program beginning in 1971, and the adviser of the track & field club program from 1972 until the program attained varsity status in 1975, when he was appointed head coach of that program. Keleher remained the head coach of both programs until 1977, at which time he moved on to pursue new opportunities.
From the decade of the 1970s, the bond created for roughly a dozen of these student-athletes and their coach has withstood the test of time. Sure, some are not available to meet with the group at times, but for a group which came together so many years ago to still meet on a regular basis is truly remarkable.
What a story!
As an Eas tern graduate (B.S. in Communication in 1999) and a former undergraduate assistant baseball coach, I have always been intrigued with the history of athletics of my alma mater. I spent many years volunteering time at Eastern following my graduation and was fortunate to join the department as a university assistant in charge of the event staff in 2014. Since that time, I have decided to pursue my Master’s Degree in Sport Management and a career in athletic administration. As part of the program, I was required to perform an internship and had talked to sports information director Bob Molta about the possibility of working with him.
After getting everything in order to begin my internship in sports information in January, Bullet and I sat down to discuss many possible stories I would research and write during the following months. I was intrigued when the idea of writing this story about a group of cross country and track & field athletes and their coach who have been friends for at least as long as I have been alive, was pitched. I have had many friends come and go in my 40 years, and I could not understand how this group of individuals was still getting together and staying in contact with each other after all this time.
Bullet had been in contact with Trenton Wright, a member of the group, about the interest in writing this story. Wright provided Bullet with a list of names and contact information for many members of the group. I took this list and began with contacting Mr. Wright and coach John Keleher to set up in person interviews, as these two individuals were considered the leading men in the rise of the programs.
After sitting down with both of these gentlemen in May, I came away impressed with their recollection of the early days of the varsity cross country program, as well as their burning desire to elevate a track & field club program to varsity status.
Following those interviews, I set out to contact by phone as many of the group members as I could in order to gather more information on them and the programs. Each member of the group was asked for his take on the primary factors in why the group as stayed together for all of these years.
It quickly became apparent to me that these individuals all had very different personalities, but that there were a few common threads that allowed this group to form such a time-tested bond. The common denominators were Misters Keleher and Wright, running in general, and the fact that they were all there when this whole thing got started.
While the cross country program had been elevated to the varsity level just prior to the arrival of many of these individuals, track & field began as a club almost immediately after the majority of the group came to Eastern, and everyone fought together to get the program elevated to varsity status.
After conducting my interviews -- and with the help of an historical reference booklet compiled by Wright from his undergraduate days as a columnist and sports editor of the Campus Lantern -- I set out to write their story. Ultimately, to do this story justice and to include as much information as possible, I settled upon a four-part series (to be honest, there was enough information available to write a novel).
Through speaking with everyone I had the pleasure of making contact with, I almost felt like I was a part of the team back then (impossible since I was not born until many of these guys had graduated) and part of the group now. It is my hope that the story has been written accurately and in a way that at least partly describes how they felt to be part of the beginnings of the program and the group that still remains close today.
Throughout this four-part series – which will run periodically over the next several weeks -- we will examine what made this group special and search for the reasons that they have formed such a long-lasting bond.
Part 1: “The Coach” introduces John Keleher, the first coach in cross country and track & field history.
Part 2: From “Humble Beginnings” to “Too Good, Too Fast” examines the early years of cross country as a varsity program and the first year of the track & field club.
Part 3: “The Mouthpiece and Ringleader” outlines Trenton Wright’s role in the elevation of the programs, from his feats as an athlete to his promotion of the teams as a writer for the Campus Lantern.
Part 4: “The Group” shares personal biographies of the current group members (as identified by Wright, Keleher and others during the research of this story) from their days at Eastern to the present.
PART 1: “The Coach”
John Keleher (far right in photo at left) is a Wethersfield native who went on to participate in cross country and track & field at the University of Connecticut, earning a Bachelor’s Degree in 1966 and a Master’s Degree in 1967. Following 11 months in the service and several other jobs, Keleher was hired at Eastern Connecticut State College in 1970 as a physical education instructor by Dr. Dana Clark, then the director of physical education and athletics.
Also instrumental in bringing Keleher to Eastern was Clyde Washburne, a teacher at RHAM High School in Hebron at the time that Keleher did his student teaching. By 1970, Washburne was teaching health and physical education at Eastern, where he was also coaching
baseball and men’s basketball (the wildly successful softball program that he pioneered was still several years in the offing).
Washburne had reached out to Keleher to gauge his interest in starting a cross country team as part of his employment at Eastern. Another person from Keleher’s past would also be involved heavily with his time at Eastern. While Keleher was at UConn, a basketball player hailing from upstate New York named Bill Holowaty arrived on campus. By 1970, Holowaty would already be a couple of years into his incredibly successful career as baseball coach at Eastern (Holowaty would later serve as director of athletics during Keleher’s tenure).
During his early days of cross country recruiting, Keleher would walk the halls of the dorms -- including “Sneaker Alley” in Shafer Hall -- and look at the footwear of those around him. In those days, Keds were the preferred brand of shoe by most college-aged kids, but if Keleher spotted a student wearing running shoes instead, he would tap that person on the shoulder and ask if they had ever run before. If so, “Congratulations, you’ve earned a spot on the cross country team.”
Another recruiting tactic in those early years involved requesting of the admissions office the names and contact information of anyone who listed jogging or running as an activity on their admissions applications. More often than not, said applicant was soon to receive a letter and/or phone call from the new Eastern cross country coach.
Based upon his background and reputation in cross country and track from Wethersfield High School and UConn, Keleher had already formed a relationship with many high school coaches in the central area of the state. He would regularly ask them if they had any student-athletes who had already applied to Eastern. He would also attend high school meets in pursuit of a team’s second, third and fourth runners, figuring he had little chance of convincing a No. 1 runner of a premier high school program to join an upstart college program.
Keleher’s recruiting pitch: “Hey, you are going to get to go on these trips.” Little did those early recruits know, those “trips” often involved an early morning wake up call, 2-3 hour van ride to the competition site, then hop back in the van for the return trip to campus. Coach busses, overnight trips and stays in fancy hotels were not part of the equation.
Growing up, Keleher was the oldest of seven children. While in high school, his father passed away. While in the service, he lost his mother. With both parents gone too soon, Keleher and his wife, Jane (who recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary), took in his six siblings, the youngest of which was in fifth grade. Keleher and his wife would also begin their own family during his time at Eastern. During his early years on the Eastern staff, Keleher was also pursuing his doctorate, which necessitated travelling back and forth from Willimantic to Springfield College (at that time, on-line classes were still very much a thing of the future).
Under the direction of Keleher, the cross country program quickly became a strong regional program and earned the right to participate in the nationals within two years. Beginning in 1973, Keleher also oversaw the track & field club team, which, thanks to the lobbying efforts of Keleher, Wright & Co., was designated as an official varsity program in the spring of 1975.
In the 70s, the late Angus Wooten, a great friend and former UConn teammate of Keleher, spent several years as a volunteer assistant coach at Eastern (in similar fashion to on-line classes, paid assistants were also a thing of the future). As beloved and respected by the athletes as Keleher, Wooten was held in high esteem by those associated with the program.
In the early years, it was apparent to Keleher that he would need to keep his cross country guys occupied (read: out of trouble) at the conclusion of their season, which ended in early November. The athletes knew they needed something more, as well. This led directly to the formation of the track & field club team in 1973. However, the -athletes soon became dissatisfield with second-class status, and wanted more. They did everything they could to prove they should become a varsity squad.
For his part, Keleher cites several factors which created the unbroken link which has bound
his former athletes for more than four decades. He figures his involvement was due to his only being about five years older than his early student-athletes. He also senses that team members bonded because they were part of starting something (both programs) and that they spent so much time together jumping in a van on a Saturday morning, heading to the events, running the events, and immediately jumping right back in the vans to come back to campus. These types of trips can cause close relationships, or cause guys to grow tired of seeing each other, but this group certainly came together.
Keleher also had this to say when asked about the closeness of the group; “Guys are close because there were no egos, they supported each other, and continue to do so today. They have all gone on to contribute to society in some way. They are all good people and they accepted each other for who they were. It was a good time and a great group of guys to work with. Never would I have expected to stay close with them all, but t here are always some people you do stay in contact with.”
At right: For playing instrumental roles in the formation of the cross country and track & field programs in the early 1970s, Keleher (far left) and Wright (far right) were each presented a Pioneer Award by the E-Club Hall of Fame Committee in 2004.
At the conclusion of the spring season in 1977, Keleher resigned from Eastern, moving on to a successful 25-year coaching career at Central Connecticut State University (a Division II institution at the time which later moved up to Division I). After “retiring” from Central in 2002, Keleher relaxed for one weekend before accepting a position as athletic director for the Darien public schools, overseeing unprecedented growth at Darien High School. Keleher, who has run the Manchester Thanksgiving Day Road Race countless times and the Boston Marathon twice, is now enjoying his second “retirement”.
In 2004, Keleher and Wright were each awarded a Pioneer Award by the E-Club Hall of Fame in recognition of their roles in the formation and development of the cross country and track & field programs.
“They said it” - Thoughts on Coach John Keleher from his Alumni
“He is fair and patient”, adding that Coach and his wife were like surrogate parents to the student-athletes. Also stated that he knew Coach and the college allowed him to participate and he tried not to embarrass Coach in any way.” – Guy Glover 1971-75
“He is a great coach who knew his stuff and all of the technical aspects of both sports. You could walk into his office at any time. He got everything started and he is a great guy who really built the camaraderie of the group.” –Rene Charland 1972-76
“As a coach, he was never demanding, never yelling or screaming. He was very encouraging and a great mentor. He was always very accepting of us and very calming at all times, no matter what we did. When we get together, it is like no time has passed at all.” – Steve Lord 1972-76
“He cared more about the student-athletes as people than as athletes, and he wanted them to grow and learn and take advantage of the opportunities they had at Eastern.” Also said that Coach was not a yeller, but that everyone responded because they knew he cared about them.
– Eric Williamson, 1972-76
“Coach had the type of personality that he could relate to, and get along with, anybody. Coach also never made guys show up to workouts; the team would take care of anyone who missed, but that was rarely an issue because of the respect we had for Coach.”
–Trenton Wright , 1972-76
“Coach was a great guy, very devoted, caring, and knowledgeable about the sport. He gave up a lot of his free time for me.” – Vin Pillari, 1973-77
“I envy his ability to deal with young men in college at that time. There was not a lot of yelling and screaming, just a way of talking to you that you understood what he wanted. He had a dry sense of humor and was always there for you when you needed him.” – Rich Zadroga (at left), 1974-78
“I had a unique relationship with Coach due to being friends with his brothers and our time together at RHAM (where Keleher was a student-teacher). He was just your average, decent guy with us.” –Bob McKay, 1975-79
“He was a tremendous coach who had a way of getting you to work really hard to improve. People responded to him. He is a special man and they are a special family. I always remember during his first year at Central Connecticut, he showed up to an indoor meet at Coast Guard and was urging me on during my event.” –Pete Nystrom 1975-79