By Budd Bailey
One of my favorite days of the year is when I introduce the inductees into the Western New York Running Hall of Fame. We have an annual ceremony in the Elmwood Village in Buffalo on the Friday before Labor Day. Here is the text of my remarks on Friday night.
The three men that we are saluting this year are a demonstration of one of the best parts of our sport: inclusiveness. That is to say – everyone is welcome at the starting line of a race, and everyone celebrates together at the finish line. For most of our races, we don’t ask about your age, your sex, or your skill level. We all run together. That means most of the barriers to competition have been stripped away, although it did take some time to reach that idea. Thousands of dollars are not needed for equipment in our sport. If you have a pair of sneakers, you can run. That makes this the most democratic – small D – of sports. , and we all can take pride in that.
So let’s take a look at the careers of our three inductees. They came to the starting line from different backgrounds, but they had running in common.
Lewis Bennett (“Deerfoot”)
A great many runners have passed through Western New York, but only one can be called a world record-holder. That man is Lewis Bennett, one of the pioneers of long distance running.
Bennett was born on the Cattaraugus Reservation of the Seneca tribe somewhere around 1828 – the exact date is unclear. His first bit of fame came in 1856, when he won a five-mile race at a county fair. The prize money was $25. Bennett’s time was 25 minutes. To put that in perspective, that time would have won the Shamrock Run earlier this year.
Bennett’s running talents took him across the country, and in 1861 he went to England for a busy 20-month running tour. There he took on competition that was considered to be the best in the world, and beat most of it. Bennett set world records at 10 miles, 11 miles and 1 hour. Along the way, he picked up the nickname of “Deerfoot.” His representatives apparently knew how to market him. Bennett must have cut quite a figure with a feather apron and head band serving as his running clothes. He also let out with some war cries after wins. In other words, Bennett marketed himself as a star even before such a phrase had yet to be invented.
Upon returning to Western New York, Bennett limited his competitive efforts to the Northeast. But he was still mighty fast. “Deerfoot” won a five-mile race in 1868 with a time of 24:15, which would have been fourth in last year’s Turkey Trot. He died in 1897, and is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery, not too far from here. Runners still touch his grave for luck as they go by.
Bennett has several descendants who live in Western New York. We even have some out-of-staters here tonight. I can tell you that they are still proud of the accomplishments of this running legend.
Speaking of legendary figures, Fred Gordon may have reached that status as a runner in Buffalo – even though legends usually don’t show up to take a bow at events like this one. The stories about him are as good as his exploits.
There’s the time in high school when he took a physics exam at the end of the day and missed the bus from Bennett to a cross-country meet. Some would have gone home. Gordon ran 2.5 miles to Delaware Park. Suitably warmed up, he won that race. Or, there was the time that Gordon ran six miles from Buffalo to Orchard Park for a five-mile race. He took part in the race, and then ran home for a day’s total of 17 miles. As the saying goes, they don’t make them like that anymore.
Gordon was one the best runners in the city of Buffalo in high school, and he was known for his encyclopedic knowledge of his fellow athletes. He may have known more about Bill Donnelly’s athletic resume than Bill did. After graduating from Bennett, Gordon was off to Howard University. There he ran a 4:25 mile for its track team, and was one of the top distance runners in his school’s conference in 1968 and 1969. Those teams were inducted into Howard’s athletic Hall of Fame last year.
From there, Gordon continued to add to his list of athletic accomplishments. His first attempt at running the Boston Marathon came in 1973, when he turned in a time of 2:57. Gordon says in hindsight that the race taught him lessons on how to prepare for such long distances. He finished the 1978 race in 2:25:29, one of the fastest times by any Western New York runner in that world-famous event. Gordon went on to run Boston 13 times.
But he didn’t do all of his running on Heartbreak Hill. Gordon has taken part in 47 Turkey Trots. That sort of longevity is worth celebrating. He remains an inspiration not only to his fellow African Americans, but to anyone who has put on a pair of sneakers.
It’s difficult to say what records our third and final inductee might have set during his long association with running. However, it’s fair to say that Jack Meegan probably holds the record for most laps run around Delaware Park’s Ring Road. He probably knew every inch of that 1.77-mile oval, and he probably knew every runner who went there for a workout during his long career. The next time you run the Ring Road at Delaware Park and need a rest, stop on the bench dedicated to his memory.
Meegan was a good enough athlete to earn a scholarship to Northwestern University while growing up. His love affair with athletics continued when he returned to Western New York. Meegan played hockey and softball when he wasn’t on the track, but by all accounts he did everything well.
However, long distance running eventually won him over. Meegan ran his first Boston Marathon at the age of 43 in 1973. Six years later, he set a personal best by posting a time of 2:42 at the age of 49. Meegan went on to run a total of 30 Boston Marathons.
At this point, we probably should salute Jack’s running shoes. Those Nikes paid a terrible price for all of Meegan’s long-distance trips. The company stopped making that style at one point, but Meegan continued to wear them for marathons. At one point, no one could tell where the shoes stopped and the duct tape holding them together started. Still, he persevered.
Meegan served as a coach at Mount Mercy Academy, which won several conference championships under his leadership. He also worked with many others in a volunteer capacity, and became one of the most popular runners in our history.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)