Wednesday, June 8, 2016

V6 N. 43 Jon Hendershott, Hommage from Paul O'Shea

Jon Hendershott, One of the Sport’s Eminent Journalists,
Leaves Track and Field News with Multitudes of Old, Good Friends
By Paul O’Shea






Adlai Stevenson returned to his alma mater Princeton University in 1954 after twice running for the Presidency, and serving as Ambassador to the United Nations and Governor of Illinois. Remembering his years at the Ivy League school he told the senior class: Your days are short here; this is the last of your springs.  And now in the serenity and quiet of this lovely place, touch the depths of truth, feel the hem of Heaven.  You will go away with old, good friends. And don’t forget when you leave, why you came.
After a distinguished career of 48 years, his legacy secure as one of this sport’s foremost writers, Jon Hendershott leaves Track and Field News. We know why he came--to write about the sport he loved, with flair, enthusiasm and integrity, and appreciation for its history and relevance.  He moves on with multitudes of old, good friends.


Thirteen years after Adlai Stevenson spoke at Princeton, the 21-year-old Hendershott began work at Track and Field News.  He came to California from Washington, and over almost the next five decades traveled to small towns and major cities across continents to cover Olympians and back-of-the-pack high schoolers, wherever there were runners, jumpers and throwers.


Jon will certainly remember how he came to track and field reporting, and those of us who looked for his byline are rewarded by the stories he told.  He made hundreds, perhaps thousands of friends, completing his service as Associate Editor.  From the era when races were timed in tenths of a second to today’s automatic hundredths, Jon reported at nine Olympic Games, fourteen World Championships (missing just one), innumerable national and international meetings, conference events, and lesser competitions.  He’s interviewed and written about many of the sport’s prominent figures, a number of whom became his friends.


Ironically, the writer in waiting emerged after becoming transfixed by a photograph.


When Jon was ten, older brother Bob brought home a copy
of LIFE Magazine.  There on the cover, blazing across the finish line, winning the 1956 Olympic Games 100 meters was Bobby Morrow of the United States.  The glories of Olympic sport made an indelible impression on the Seattle-raised fifth grader.  


“Having been swept away by the photography from those Games, in my naiveté, I wanted to be an Olympic-level athlete,” Jon remembers. “It didn’t take long to have that pipe dream punctured.  Once I got to junior high I tried sprinting and hurdling but couldn’t make the team.  When we moved from Bend, Oregon where I was born and I got to high school in Seattle, I was no better.  Strictly a junior varsity hurdler and mile relayer was I.”


He spent his first eight years in Klamath Falls where his dad coached high school football and track, “there were more than a few times when my brother, mom and I would go to the high school to watch practice, especially for track in the spring.


“I can’t say that I had any grand feeling of ‘freedom when running, the wind flying around me,’ or anything quite that lyrical.  But when I both discovered the Olympics at age ten, then tried out for track in junior high, the sport just grabbed hold of me.
“Even back in junior high I somehow knew that I had to find a way to get to the Olympics. It also happened that in junior high and then in high school that I took journalism classes and found that I could string together more than a few words into coherent and somehow readable sentences.  I wrote about track and other sports for the school newspaper. So writing about track specifically, became the vehicle by which I eventually got to experience all that is the Olympics.”


Jon picked up his first issue of Track and Field News when his high school coach subscribed and shared copies with the athletes. “I was totally smitten and in 1962 began subscribing immediately.”


After high school he entered the journalism program at the University of Washington. Then, in 1965, like a boxed in runner who sees a curb lane open up fifty meters from the finish line, he saw an ad in the magazine.  Track and Field News editors were looking for an intern. Jon applied to managing editor Dick Drake and was accepted for the one-year assignment only to confront an implacable object, Jon’s father.


“I asked my dad if I could take the job in Los Altos, California and it was the only time in our family life that he said no.  It was my freshman year in college, and he thought I should wait until I graduated.  And he was right.”  
Several years later T&FN circulation was growing like a triple jumper—in leaps and bounds.  Again Jon answered an ad and this time he entered the athletics world on December 1, 1967 as an editorial assistant in Los Altos. Transferring to San Jose State and majoring in magazine journalism he continued working toward his degree. World-class sprinters like Tommie Smith and Lee Evans walked across campus with the novice journalist.  It was his first mixed zone.


During his time with track and field’s foremost information source, Jon has handled a variety of assignments, managing a fleet of stringers, finding and acquiring immense amounts of the sport’s data, and working with dozens of photographers across the world since the magazine first went to full-color production in 1996 with the Athens Olympic Games issue.  The ten-year-old whose interest was fired by a LIFE photo turned out to have a keen sense of the story that a captivating photo will tell.  He also wrote single event analysis, participated in Track and Field News prediction efforts, and weighed in on the internationally acclaimed Yearly Rankings.  In addition, he also shepherded Track and Field News Tour members.


Since early successes and misfortunes with the barriers in high school (“My dream was to be an Olympic 400 hurdler), he’s had a special affection for the event and its high-end performers.  He’s interviewed such as Kingdom, Nehemiah, Drut, Moses, Young, Devers, Jones, Oliver, Jackson, Merritt, Richardson.  Three years ago in an article subtitled “Just A Wild & Crazy Thought,” he posited the idea that hurdlers could run faster if they took two rather than three steps between hurdles. It proved not to be a step whose idea had come.


In the view of this writer, one of Jon’s special strengths is the ability to find the soul of an athlete through long-form interviews.   Digging through recent issues supplied by my good friend, Tom Coyne of Kalamazoo, Michigan, another long-time subscriber, three articles show Jon at his best.


Jon’s interview with Jason Richardson came before the 2013 Moscow Worlds.  He explored how Jason’s focus on hurdling increased under the tutelage of John Smith, and the differences in concentration required between the collegiate and professional environments.  Jason also revealed why he trains on 39-inch rather than 42-inch hurdles.  Following retirement from athletics, Richardson has prepared a bucket list that includes attending a tennis Grand Slam tournament, NBA playoffs, Oscars, and the Metropolitan Opera Gala Ball.  He also intends to read the Bible in its entirety twice.


Brigetta Barrett presented another interesting subject, following winning the high jump silver medal in the 2012 Olympic Games.  In addition to her athletic abilities, Barrett offered entertainment talents as a singer.  In the post-event interview at the Olympics, she sang a religious hymn after being asked what she sang while in competition.  She has sung at professional baseball and football bowl games.


In 2014 Jon talked with Molly Huddle, whose success at shorter distances opened up questions about the University of Notre Dame runner moving up to the marathon.  The piece also explored her life with husband Kurt Benninger, another successful collegiate distance performer.  Huddle discussed the unusual benefits of a runner married to a spouse who understands the demands required of athletes who train at the elite level.


After decades of sitting in press boxes and standing trackside, Jon chose three of the greatest performances, two of which he witnessed.  The three were Billy Mills’ electrifying victory in the l964 Olympic 10,000 meters, Mac Wilkins setting three consecutive discus world records in one meet in 1976, and the l991 World Championships long jump, when Mike Powell set a world record, just after Carl Lewis had first obliterated Bob Beamon’s 29 feet, two-and-a-half inch Mexico mark. More recently, Jon holds high Usain Bolt’s two hundred meter world record of 19.19 set at the 2009 Worlds in Berlin.   


While he did not see the Mills victory in person, he viewed the TV coverage and the subsequent documentary of the Tokyo Olympiad.  In addition, Jon’s first major interview for T&FN was in l968 with the gold medalist.


Earlier in his career, one of the great runners he reported on was Steve Prefontaine.  “Once, we were sitting next to each other on a plane, as we headed up to Bakersfield, California for the l973 USA Championships. Though I had a chance to talk to him for a while, I realized that he was on his way to a big race, probably deep in thought. So the right thing to do was just to let him be.  I also felt he was a bit shy, and didn’t want to be disturbed.  So it was quiet there for most of the flight.”


One measure of professional achievement is the respect given by one’s peers.  Track and Field Writers of America elected him its president in l994 and l995, and conferred its Jesse Abramson Award as Journalist of the Year in l989 and 2012. He also is the author of Track’s Greatest Women, published in l987, which featured chapters on fifteen of the greatest female track athletes to that time, ranging from Babe Didrikson to Evelyn Ashford.


Though retired from day-to-day responsibilities at T&FN and now living in Salem, Oregon, he keeps his hand in as a senior correspondent.  Earlier this year the magazine ran a full page article on Jon’s stepping down, which included sentiments from sub-four minute miler Jim Beatty, hurdle legend Renaldo Nehemiah, Olympic hammer thrower Ken Flax, Coach Dave Wollman, World hurdle champ Tonie Campbell, and Decathlon Superstar Ashton Eaton.


Chicago Tribune writer Phil Hersh wrote: “Once again, Jon, my everlasting thanks for being a great colleague who was always willing to share his expertise with those of us who covered the sport far less frequently.  No matter how harried you might have been, you always found the time to answer a question, pass on a kind word or simply to elevate everyone’s mood with a smile.”


Ed Fox, long time Publisher of Track and Field News, assesses Jon’s contributions this way.  “Jon was a mainstay of our magazine for almost 50 years, and he now transitions into a well-deserved retirement.  But of course, we’re not going to let him leave us completely.  He’ll still do assignments for the magazine, and we’re going to keep him as our lead in-person at our Tour functions, a task he has done brilliantly through the years.  So Jon will thankfully still be involved, but no longer subjected to those cruel monthly deadlines that bedevil our editorial staff.


“Jon still has the same enthusiasm for our sport, and respect for its history, that he had when he started with us as a 21-year-old, and that’s what made him so valuable to us over the years—as a resource and a track and field ‘fellow traveler.’”


Finally, there are the thoughts of Olympian, American record holder and victor in The Dream Mile against Jim Ryun, when Marty Liquori was thinking about hanging up the spikes.
Quit?  Retire?  Hell, no.  Next year, I’m really gonna train.


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Paul O’Shea is a lifelong participant in the track and field and running world, as competitor, coach, journalist and traveler to national and international events.  After retirement from a career in corporate communications, he coached a high school girls’ cross country team and was a long-time contributor to Cross Country Journal and Athletics, the Canadian publication. He now writes for Once Upon a Time in the Vest from his home in northern Virginia, and can be reached at Poshea17@aol.com.

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