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A Tribute to Larry James
December 17, 2007 - by Walt Murphy

It was an event as thrilling and memorable as a day at the Olympics. And no wonder--everywhere you looked, there were Olympians, many of them medalists.

Hosted by The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, an estimated 1,000 people showed up on December 1 to pay tribute to 2-time Olympic medalist “Mr. G. Larry James” for his “Four Decades of Excellence”. (James won gold[4x400] and silver[400] medals at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City)

It became apparent during the afternoon that James, the Dean of Athletics and Recreational Programs and Services at the school, had touched the lives of many people over the years and the word “love” was used by just about everyone who spoke of their relationship with the former Villanova Wildcat.

This was the kind of tribute normally reserved for someone who has passed away. In fact, an equally moving affair had been held just a few days earlier at the NY Athletic Club in honor of the late Al Oerter. But James, a member of USATF’s Hall of Fame, got to hear first-hand all of the wonderful things that people had to say about him. And you’d never know that he was facing an uphill battle against cancer. As if he wanted to let everyone know it was OK to enjoy the day, he had a smile on his face from the moment he walked into the Sports Center until the affair ended some three hours later.

One of the first speakers was Ed Kehe, James’s coach at White Plains H.S. in NY. Kehe spoke of James’s all-around talent, citing his ability in the 180y and 330y hurdles and the triple jump, as well as the long sprints. Said Kehe, “Larry, you’re my hero, I salute you for a life well-lived”. James was a key member of White Plains teams that set long-standing National Records in the 880y and mile relays in 1966.

Dave Patrick, the captain of the Villanova team in 1968, when James was a sophomore, said, “Jumbo (Elliott) is looking down on you, busting out with pride”, referring to the legendary Wildcat coach.

Patrick spoke of James approaching him early in the 1968 indoor season concerning the teams’ planned participation in the NYAC meet in Madison Square Garden. This was a tumultuous time, when the battle for civil rights was raging, and James was concerned about the team supporting an event sponsored by a club that had discriminatory policies at the time. Patrick called a team meeting to discuss what the team should do and the vote was 17-0 in favor of boycotting the meet. The united team became known as “Jumbo’s Togetherness Troupe”. (The NYAC has come a long way since then--its new Athletic Director is African-American)

Photo of Larry James approaching the line at Philadelphia's Franklin Field - courtesy of Walt Murphy

Patrick, the 1968 NCAA Champion in the 1500-meters, then talked about the 1968 Penn Relays, the setting for one of James’s most memorable races. Villanova had already won 4 Relays titles, but their quest for an unprecedented 5th win would have to come at the expense of favored Rice in the mile relay, the final event of the weekend.

Said Patrick, “28,000 fans (with most rooting for the hometown Wildcats) were just waiting for this event. Rice’s Dale Bernauer had a 15-yard lead going into the anchor leg, but you could see by the look on his face that nothing would stop Larry. The roar of the crowd was unbelievable--deafening”. James not only caught Bernauer, he never let up and went on to win by about 10 yards. (see link below for photo)

Sitting in the stands, Patrick and other Wildcats checked their watches to see what James’s split was. They all had the same thought--”I must have messed up--no one can run that fast”. “And then”, continued Patrick, “we hear Jack O’Reilly (the late “Voice of the Relays”) say, ‘Larry James just ran 43... and you couldn’t hear the rest, the roar was so loud”. James had run an incredible 43.9 anchor (for yards!), the fastest relay split in history at the time. James was encouraged by his teammates to take a victory lap in front of the thousands of fans who were still buzzing about James’s incredible performance.

Patrick concluded his time at the microphone by telling James that Erv Hall, one of his 1968 teamates (and the Olympic silver medalist in the 110-hurdles) had a gift for him. James had to be convinced it wasn’t a practical joke, but then opened the box to find a Villanova warmup shirt, emblazoned with his worthy nickname, “The Mighty Burner”, and his Penn split--43.9y. At that point, all of his Villanova teammates stood up, each holding their own copy of the shirt.

Next to speak was another Villanova alum, Don Bragg, the 1956 Olympic gold medalist in the pole vault. Bragg, who hired James in 1972 when he was the Athletic Director at Stockton, said to his former employee, “I’d like to repeat the words of Johnny Weissmuller, who said...”--and then proceeded to give his patented Tarzan yell, much to the delight of James and the rest of the crowd. (Bragg had aspirations to play the jungle role made famous by Weissmuller)

Unable to attend due to a conflict with the group’s Annual Meeting, which was being held at the same time in Hawaii, USATF CEO Craig Masback offered his tribute in a video. Masback, who followed James at White Plains H.S., related how he was one of three 8th-graders who got to ask James questions after he returned home from the 1968 Olympics. Masback then praised James for his contributions to USATF, which include his roles as Team Manager at the 2003 and 2005 World Championships and Budget Chairperson. “We wouldn’t be the same organization without you”, said Masback.

A poster was then displayed that featured the signatures of many USATF members who had to be at the Annual Meeting. The poster was brought from Hawaii by Accusplit’s Steve Simmons, who was instrumental in bringing together many of the athletes for the occasion.

Simmons, an ardent supporter of the idea that the 1968 U.S. Olympic team was the “greatest in history”, told of a conversation he had with Michael Johnson, the world record holder at 400-meters. Referring to the likes of James, Lee Evans, and Tommie Smith, Johnson said to Simmons, “You don’t think I could beat those guys, do you?”. Simmons, not looking to deflate MJ’s sense of his place in the history of the 400, just said with a smile, “Let’s not go there”.

One of the many highlights of the afternoon came when his relay teammates from Mexico City--Vince Matthews, Ron Freeman, Lee Evans-- got up as a group to offer their comments.

Matthews, who competed against James in high school, said he understood the term “The Mighty Burner”. “Larry delivered smooth, efficient, heat”.

Evans, who beat James for the Olympic gold medal in the 400 in 1968, first saw his future teammate run at the 1968 Millrose Games, where he won the 500y. “I said to myself, ‘He’s pretty smooth’, and found myself admiring him. Then I realized he might be running the 400 outdoors. I asked Jumbo Elliott, ‘What’s this kid going to run outdoors?’. He just smiled, but when I got back to California, I increased my training regimen”. (James had been considered more of a prospect in the 400-meter hurdles entering the 1968 season)

Evans, who was at San Jose State at the time, lost for the first to James in the 440y at the 1969 NCAA Indoor Championships in Detroit’s Cobo Hall. “I let my guard down because I got to know (and like) him”, said a smiling Evans, who made a gesture that indicated a well-placed elbow early in the race might have changed the outcome. A rare admisson from one of the sport’s fiercest competitors, but also an indication of the admiration he had for James.

Evans had taken offense when his San Jose teammate, John Carlos, like James a veteran of the indoor tracks in the East, told him before the race, “You’ll never beat Larry in a quarter”. Carlos, the last athlete to speak, explained with feeling, “The boards were in our blood!”.

Speaking for many of the athletes who had flown in from all parts of the country for the occasion, Carlos said, “There is no distance too far, no height too high, to keep us from being here for one of our brothers”.

The most emotional part of the day came when James’s son, Larry B., got up to speak. The room fell silent as he fought back tears, but, with his father pumping his fist in encouragement, he finally said, "I want everyone to know that I love him”. Then, alluding to his father’s health, he added, "Not while he is in a coma or a hospital. But while he is alive and kicking right there."

A video and slide show followed, showing James in action at the 1968 Penn Relays and Mexico Olympics, as well as a picture of him in uniform during his time in the United States Marine Corp Reserves. There were also clips of James participating in the staged relay races that were featured in the Bill Cosby show.

It was finally time to hear from the man himself. First in a video, where his opening line was, "To paraphrase Mark Twain, the rumors of my departure have been greatly exaggerated." Noting what day it was, he said, “December 1--the same day Rosa Parks sat down so we could stand up”.

Making light of the theme of the day, “Four Decades of Excellence”. he joked, “I can only think of 7 days”, mentioning, among other things, his marriage to Cynthia, his wife of 37 years. “And today makes 8”, he added with a smile.

To the sound of a standing ovation (one of many during the day), the 60-year old James (left) then spoke “live”. Again showing his smile and sense of humor, he said, “I got the mike, I got the mike”, and then, “The PSAL is in the house!”, an acknowledgement of the many former runners who made the trip from NY City to show their support.

The festivities then moved outdoors for a ceremony that commemmorated Stockton’s naming of its stadium the G. Larry James Stadium(The “G” stands for George). The school also placed a stone at the stadium's entrance for Stockton athletes to touch as a tribute to James as they enter the playing field. James and the other 1968 relay members--Evans, Matthews and Freeman--were symbolically the first to touch it.

Donations were collected during the day to help establish the G. Larry James Legacy Fund, which will help endow scholarships at Stockton. "As much as I appreciate what happened today, I'm more enamored of the impact of the legacy fund," James said. "I'm honored by that. That's eternity. That will help people I don't even know about."

In addition to the athletes mentioned above, also in attendance were some more of his Villanova teammates, including Marty Liquori, Tom Donnelly, Dick Buerkle, Charlie Messenger, Bill Heidelberger, Al McCafferty, Andy O'Reilly, Craig Nation, Jack O'Leary, Des McCormack, Bob Whitehead, Dave Fender, Bill McLaughlin, and the other members of that Penn mile relay--Hardge Davis, Hal Nichter, and Ken Prince. Former Wildcats Charlie Jenkins, the 2-time Olympic gold medalist in 1956(400,4x400), current Villanova coach Marcus O’Sullivan, John Marshall, Glen Bogue, Ed Collymore, Martin Booker, and Larry Livers, as well as Dave Coskey, the school’s former Sports Information Director, were also there to pay tribute to one of their own.

The athlete list wasn’t confined to ex-Villanovans, with Josh Culbreath, the 1956 Olympic silver medalist in the 400-hurdles(and a participant in those Cosby “races”), Charlie Pratt, the former NCAA low hurdles(180y) and U.S. decathllon champion, Joetta Clark-Diggs, long/triple jumper Norm Tate, and John Moon, the coach at Seton Hall, also joining in the celebration.

It was a day that will long be remembered by those who were lucky enough to be there. Dave Patrick said it best--”It was vintage Larry, giving more back than he gets. His inspiring video and talk will be engrained in my mind forever. I am sure the experience in some way will make us all better for it”.