Gene La Rose Track and Field Meet celebrates 50 years

Metro Wire Staff

It started as a face-off between the best two fifth- and sixth-grade boys and girls from each elementary school.

Since then, it’s grown to include all fifth and sixth graders in the Stevens Point Area Public School District’s elementary schools and one charter school.

Easily, the annual Gene La Rose Track and Field Meet is the highlight of the school year, and this year promises to be the biggest and best so far as the district celebrates the meet’s 50th anniversary.

“Gene and his colleagues—about 10 teachers to start and more than 50 over the years—I don’t think ever imaged this event being the staple and tradition that it has become,” said Nancy Schuster, physical education teacher and event organizer from Plover-Whiting School. “The staff have poured their hearts and souls into this meet to make it a meaningful and memorable moment for our students.

“It’s a big year to honor all that were before and all going forward,” she added.

The school and community event takes place Tuesday, May 21 and Wednesday, May 22, at Goerke Field. An opening ceremony begins at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday and will honor the first-place winners—with about 20 appearing in person—of the inaugural meet in 1970 as well as the physical education instructors who made the event possible over the past 50 years.

Among the honorees will be La Rose, a former physical education teacher, and principal who started the event during the 1969-70 school year; a way to get fifth- and sixth-graders more interested in track and field and celebrate the accomplishments of the physical education curriculum.

The event quite possibly has grown into a feeder program for some of the best cross country and track competition around the state.

“The high school was really struggling with track and field and we really wanted to get kids into it,” said Bob Bucholtz, a former physical education teacher who helped get the games started. “After Gene became principal, we added a cross country run, and at that time Stevens Point started to dominate in the Valley.

“I can’t help but be proud, I can’t help but feel the groundwork was laid in the track meet,” said Bucholtz, who used to hand-make and engrave 1,000 medals each year for the kids.

“I wholeheartedly agree,” Schuster said.

La Rose attempted to track those sentiments with data, but the first year the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Association included girls track and field was 1977, the year after the first class graduated high school.

Today, the event boasts 17 track and field events, including the tug, hop-step-jump, running jump, medicine ball/javelin throw, shot put, standing long jump, 50/100/200/400-meter dash, 50-meter walk, 50-meter run, 400-meter relay (five divisions) and the 50-meter hurdles, some of which are specifically designed for those in adaptive phy ed classes.

That first year, 200 sixth-graders and 240 fifth-graders vied for medals in 11 events. Today, more than 1,000 children participate in the culminating physical education activity, choosing their events after weeks of work at their individual schools, and about 1,500 medals are awarded.

This year, students in the top eight placements will be graced with a commemorative medal that mirrors the ones that will be distributed to original track meet participants at the ceremony. All fifth- and sixth-graders will receive a commemorative t-shirt donated by the Point Bock Running Club.

Madison, McKinley, Emerson, Custer, Lincoln, Jefferson, Kennedy, McDill, Roosevelt and Washington were involved that first year. Emerson, Custer, and Lincoln schools have since closed, but Jackson (now Point of Discovery School), Plover-Whiting, and Bannach have joined in.

“It took us a while to figure out the scheduling, and we’ve learned from our mistakes,” Bucholtz said. “The movement was towards total participation for all kids, so that’s what I admire the most.”

The 1995 introduction of the Spirit Jug (Roosevelt School won the first year) by former administrator and district superintendent Emery Babcock has been a highlight over the years, along with the changes in technology to better record the kids’ times, La Rose said as he and Bucholtz reminisced.

“You’re seeing so much good sportsmanship afterward,” La Rose said. “The crowd, when they get there and get all wound up and they’re in good voice and they’re all cheering…” he said, letting the sentence fade.

The years have not been without challenges: running the hurdles with the cinder track saw more kids heading to the nurse’s tent with scrapes, the high jump was eliminated with the change to the Fosbury flop due to lack of proper equipment.

“We had some kids who could jump farther than they did high so it didn’t matter where the mat was, they would fall outside,” Bucholtz said.

But most of all as they look back, La Rose and Bucholtz praise those who blazed the trail to create this, one of the most time-honored traditions in the district. Among those people are Jim Clark and Martha Schuh, Dave Stewart, Dave Lockett, and today’s coordinator, Schuster.

“For some students, it is the first time being part of a large ‘team’ with their peers,” Schuster said. “Over the years, we have made some great advances that makes [sic] the meet run efficiently and we’ve teamed up with SPASH Track and Field coaches.

“The elementary PE teachers just want to say thank you to everyone involved,” she said.

A list of the inaugural event’s winner follows:

Sixth grade

50-yard hurdles: Leo Wergin, Sara (Bush) Johnson
70-yard hurdles: Jerry Pionek, Kari Johnson
50-yard dash: Wade Van Tossel, Jacqueline (Wysocki) Wille
100-yard dash: Dan Fink, Lora Bush Johnson
440-yard dash: Mike Koback, Sandy (Szeligowski) Lepak, and Jacqueline Wysocki tied
200-yard shuttle relay: Pat Pavelski, Dominik Greco, Tim Cornwell, Brian White; Diane Kawleski, Debra (Allen) Beard, Mary Jo Monien, Constance Olson tied with Laura (Berndt) La Buwe, Julia Faulkner, Doreen (Firkus) Skzypkowski, Marilyn Sankey
400-yard shuttle relay: Chet Kizewski, Richards Shubert, Chris Hoeg, Larry Higgins; Nancy Hagen, Florence Gumney, Patti (Kingston) Dulski, Sue Lurawski
Hope, step, jump: Jerry Pionek, Judy (Sroda) Swoch
High jump: Dean Adamczak, Judy (Haemia) Hamilton
Long jump: Dean Hodgson, Nancy Hagen
Shot put: Scott Seavers, Cindy Witkowski

Fifth grade

50-yard high hurdles: Jeff Eckerson, Janice Armatoski
70-yard low hurdles: Randy Moser, Lois Mills
50-yard dash: LeRoy Cordy, Carol Marko
100-yard dash: LeRoy Cordy, Delores Studinski
440-yard dash: Jerry Wilkinson, Delores Studinski
200-yard shuttle relay: Faulkner, Chojnacki, Borski, Johnson; Opperman, Potocki, Zurawski, Piotrowski
400-yard shuttle relay: Hagen, Faulkner, Borski, Moeteer; Opperman, Larson, Wasieleski, Piotrowski
Hop, skip, jump: Dick Orlikowski, Nancy Flisakowski
High jump: Mike Bartach, Carol Marko
Long jump: Jerry Wojcik, Mary Larson
Shot put: Terry Wilkinson, Denise Werra