Stephen Hume: Grad of 1966
“Can it really be more than 35 years since that hot spring day when Charlie Thorne, Janice Newton and the determined few of our tiny Mount Douglas team challenged the giants of the Vancouver Island track championships of 1966?”
Mount Doug was still in the old school building that now houses Cedar Hill Junior Secondary. Back then it was a crowded, dumpy little stucco job with ugly, unimaginative, box-like additions. I don’t recall the exact size of the class graduating from Grade 12, but it was pretty small. Locker doors were sticky. On my first day, I got lost and I was late.
The principal was not inclined to admit me but he relented. That afternoon, I met Stan Gill, the P.E. and History teacher, for the first time. He hadn’t been at Mount Doug much longer than I had, arriving from the Maritimes with plans to build a competitive track team. He had some exciting new ideas – weight training for girls to strengthen the upper body, because races are won as much with the arms as the legs; the long, slow, distance method of building stamina for middle distance runners; and thinking like a team instead of as individuals.
“Mount Doug counted its enrollment in the hundreds, not the thousands. The gym was too small and so was the rugby field, which is where we chalked out our practice track. Space was so tight that you had to run eight laps to the mile – oh, did I forget to mention that this all took place before the country went metric? Charlie Thorne, the long distance guy, had to do 24 dizzying laps to get in his three mile training runs.”
“Eric Forster was the principal, George Urquhart taught Geography and loved a good argument, Mrs. Porter taught French – I’d sit in her upstairs classroom, the windows open to try and get a cross breeze in the hot, still air, just wanting to get out there on the practice track. She’d always catch me not paying attention and then ask me complicated questions very slowly in her very good French and I’d try to answer very quickly in my very bad French. I still flinch at the thought of how her eyes flashed in exasperation. But I did try my hand at a poem in French for a composition assignment and when I left it on her desk, she was a big enough person to tell her unruly student how much she liked it.”
“Nobody had even heard of Pierre Elliott Trudeau. The Prime Minister was Lester B. Pearson and although most Mount Doug students of the day didn’t care all that much, most of us knew enough about a sex scandal which had just rocked the government and that one of the annual skits spoofed what was known as the Gerda Munsinger Affair – and included a surprise ending which involved a pair of shapely female legs waving above a desk. For some reason, this did not amuse the teachers as much as it did the rest of us. Oh yes, and parents complained when one of the English teachers encouraged us to read Mordechai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, a scathingly satirical book by a Canadian about Canadians. In retrospect, Duddy seems pretty tamed by comparison to Eminem.
I hauled hay bales for the McPhersons, whose farm is now the site of a gas station and the Velox Rugby Football Club, to raise money for a new pair of Puma track shoes because the shoes supplied by the school dated from the 1930s and fit like wooden clogs. In the 1960s, most of Gordon Head was still farm fields, not residential subdivisions. Coming in from the remoter parts on the bus, you might still find yourself riding with field hands wearing those woven conical Chinese hats and clothes that looked just like the black pajamas we’d see on the nightly TV broadcasts from Vietnam, where a war was deepening and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson had begun a massive escalation by sending B-52s to bomb the North Vietnamese.
Here at home, the University of Victoria had just moved onto its new campus in an old army camp – students were taking classes in World War II army huts. Student power, the civil rights movement and the anti-war protest were all beginning to make themselves felt on Canadian university and high school campuses as draft resisters refusing to serve in the Vietnam War began to cross the border. True, most of us at Mount Doug were still more interested in a couple of new British bands, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, but tremors of change were beginning to be felt.
I remember being part of a group of students who organized a petition to protest against a questionnaire the school board wanted us to take home and have our parents fill out. I don’t remember why, but for some reason we took umbrage. A dim view was taken of this “rebellion” and several of us were called to the principal’s office, handed erasers and instructed to rub out each and every name on the petition. Which we did, graduation being only a few months away.”
“A sports power, Mount Doug was not, although it had pretty good rugby and soccer teams. Still, the playing field was a tilted expanse of hummocky grass that looked like a goat pasture. But that fall of 1965, Mr. Gill introduced us to cross-country running in his PE classes. I signed up because the prospect of escaping jail for what seemed like an unsupervised mid-afternoon jaunt through the neighborhood seemed too good a chance to miss. I was not the most diligent student. My marks were good enough to keep me from being kicked off the basketball and track teams but only just.
Our track and field squad was so small – I think it totaled nine athletes – that when we got to the 1966 Island Championships in Port Alberni, many of us did double duty, entering as many events as the rules permitted. Coach Gill frowned on this, but we said that even where we were outclassed, we could still go for points.
I took on the 440, 880, mile, long jump and a relay if I remember rightly, but I’m the first to acknowledge that my recollection may have inflated itself over all these decades. In fact, my memory of that afternoon consists chiefly of elbows and cinders – yes, this was in the days before those nifty rubberized asphalt tracks – all flying with equal abandon as we scrambled for the inside lane going into that tight first turn of the mile final.
We all did pretty well by Coach Gill, too, rewarding his faith in the few with some record-breaking performances. It’s so long ago that I don’t remember many of the details except that I managed to hold off Port Alberni star Ken Elmer to win the 880, which I still think was quite an accomplishment. Ken went on to glory and a place in the University of British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame for his prowess as a middle distance runner. You’ll still see his name plastered all over the organization of big track events.
The last time I spent some time in Port Alberni, I went out to the track and tried to remember where it was, exactly, that Ken so shrewdly positioned himself to create the maximum obstruction for anyone trying to go past him and how we all leaned so effortlessly into the curve of the track. I went for a jog. The track was deserted, the shadows long and growing longer. I’m sliding relentlessly toward 60 now. Yet I can still call up the memory of that slim, wiry Mount Doug coach walking around the track with me before the big race, telling me to get focused, to concentrate, to shut all the distractions out.
I remember him pointing to a section of track on the backstretch and saying “This is where the race will be won,” then going on around the final curve, pointing to the track again and saying, “This is where the race will be lost.” If we’d run the race properly, he would say, from here to the finish we’d be running on empty. One of us would falter, one of us wouldn’t.
That afternoon I followed his advice and went out for Mount Doug and Coach Gill on a rough cinder track and became the first high school runner on Vancouver Island to go under two minutes in the 880. That doesn’t seem like such a big deal these days, but in 1966 on the cinders, the two-minute barrier seemed almost insurmountable. Then I went out an hour later and broke the Island’s high school record for the mile, too. Janice Newton – I still remember her freckles and the flare of her hair – was edged out of the ribbons in the 100 and 220 by a red hot Carol Kitchen of Esquimalt.
But a week later at the much more important (to us, at any rate) Inter-high Track Meet in Victoria, Janice would surpass Carol in her best event, the 220, and also win ribbons in two other sprints. Charlie Thorne would get second in the two mile. Rod Fiddick, a provincial champion over 100 yards the following year, would finish second in the 220 with Bill Fediw, another champion-to-be right behind him at third. As for me, I won the mile again and broke John Valiant’s long-standing record in the 880. Those records have been surpassed many times since by much better athletes than I ever was. Indeed, by today’s high school standards those times seem painfully slow. Yet I remember the exhilaration of winning those races as vividly as if they had been run yesterday.
How stiff was the competition in the 1960s compared to today? In some ways, the comparison isn’t entirely fair since training techniques weren’t so advanced, equipment was primitive and tracks were slow. But maybe things weren’t so different. The last time I checked, Oak Bay sprinter Bob McLaren’s 1963 time for the 100 yards still waited to be broken, as did the 1969 record set by Mount Doug’s Darryl Hooker in the 110-yard hurdles, Anne Langdale’s 1969 record for the 100 and the record for the 4 x 110 relay set by Mount Doug’s girls in 1969.
To have your records stand for more than 30 years is something indeed.
In 1967, the year after I graduated from Mount Doug, the track team had two individual champions in the new provincial track meet, Rod Fiddick in the 100 and Jim Temple in the long jump. In 1968, Mt. Doug’s team finished second in the provincial championships. In 1969, it took the first of four provincial titles.
Mount Doug’s track teams would go on to claim 16 Island championships – five in a row from 1973 to 1976, and seven in a row from 1981 to 1986. Twice, it has won back-to-back B.C. championships. But most astonishing, it finished in the top three schools at the track meet a total of 13 times in 15 years and never missed finishing in the top four. Cross-country teams won six provincial titles and finished in the top three 12 times between 1971 and 1992.
I like to think that all those Municipal, Island and Provincial championships, all the great athletes that came along later and went on to distinguish themselves at university and in senior competition – taking into the rest of their lives everything that Mount Doug’s coaches taught them about perseverance, fortitude, courage; and the ability to believe that anything is possible – are really the legacy of what began in the distant 1960s with some dedicated teachers and a 220 track hand-limed on the grass outside a dumpy little school on Cedar Hill Road”
Some newspaper articles on some of the events mentioned: