Monday, August 26, 2013

Vol. 3 No. 51 A Country for Old Men- Visiting Les Hegedus - A Rare Photo of Billy Mills

A few months ago we featured a story on Leslie Hegedus, a Hungarian born runner who excelled in cross country and track in the early 1960's at  the historically African American university  Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio.  Les was a three time All American in Cross Country including national collegiate champion and three days later finishing 7th overall in the Division I competition.  He also won the USTFF national cross country meet over 6 miles, beating John Macy.  All this in the space of nine days.

Four weeks ago my two best friends  Bill Schnier, recently retired track coach at U. of Cincinnati and Steve Price, longtime Kettering Striders, Bowling Green State University, and Findlay University coach made a pilgrimage to meet Les Hegedus up in Cleveland along with a few other stops along the way.  The three of us have made a number of summer road trips over the years.  According to an unconfirmed legend, Steve and Bill began their series of travels back in the early 70's with a nocturnal highway beautification program along the road from Middletown, Ohio to Oxford, Ohio, home of Miami University, by cutting down as many advertising billboards as their two-man cross cut saw could consume.  One can only assume that this excursion was fueled by youthful idealism and alcohol.  Results of their efforts were a replacement of the billboards supported by steel posts.

Later Steve and Bill did a road trip to Memphis, New Orleans, and Greenwood, Mississippi, to see where the Devil gave Robert Johnson his extraordinary skill with the blues.  That trip resulted in Steve's first wife changing the locks on the  doors to their home.  In the years since I joined them we've done a bicycle trip through Southern, Indiana, visited the boyhood home of Ken Maynard, veteran cowboy actor in Vevay, IN, and toured the Crooked Road in the west end of Virginia.

Dick Trace pointing out the sights to George and Steve on the way to Kelly's Island in Lake Erie
Our 2013 tour may well be our last, as I'm moving to Vancouver Island in a few weeks.  Our itinerary included visiting an old marathon comrade, Richard Trace, who at 85 began a new phase of his life after his wife, Betty passed away.  Dick packed up and moved from Athens, Ohio to the shores of Lake Erie in Lakeside where his family had had a summer home in the 1920's and 30's.   During the school year  the family stayed in Oakwood, Oh a suburb of Dayton.  Dick was one of the first Dayton area residents to run at Boston in the late 50's.  He  took up running after college, after the army and after, studying in Paris on the G.I. Bill.  He is probably the last living American to talk to Tokyo Rose and General Tojo, as he was a prison guard where they were held after the war.

When we got to Dick's place he told us he had been reading this blog and had a picture of Les Hegedus and Billy Mills hanging in his garage.  He reminded us that in the 1950's Dayton, Ohio had hosted the national AAU meet in 1953 and 1957.  Unfortunately the meet was a minor organzational disaster, with mismarked lanes that caused some of the winners to run significantly shorter distances in the 220 and 440 yard races.  It was never hosted again, but the local Dayton Athletic Club still put on a pretty good Ohio AAU meet each June, and the Quantico Marine's came there several years including Billy Mills.  About 1963 Billy ran the 3 mile and was defeated by Les and Andy Schram, a promising distance runner from Miami U.

We went down into the garage, and sure enough there was the picture as described by Dick.   I photographed the photograph and had an 8x10 made at a local shop to bring to Les.   I had earlier found Les in and had been talking to him several times over the previous months.  Below is the photo.

You will notice that the picture is now autographed by Billy   "Les, you beat me bad that day.  Billy Mills"
How that came about will be in part two of this story.  Andy Schram is the third runner in the picture.
Another Gem on Dick's Wall ,  Coach Stan Huntsman at Ohio University Talking to Elmore Banton x left and two other runners.  Banton was NCAA XC champion and for many years head coach at Ohio University
After an excursion to Kelly's Island in Lake Erie, we moved on to Cleveland to meet Les.

As mentioned earlier, Les and I had written to each other and talked on the phone but never face to face.
Les and his wife Marge were waiting on the front porch when we arrived and graciously welcomed us into their home in Westlake, outside of Cleveland.  Les, now 75 years old and limited in his running by some health problems, was so happy to meet three  old track coaches who remembered his running feats.  We chatted for an hour or so, then went to lunch and came back to his house.  Five hours passed before we knew it.  We went through Les' scrapbooks and gathered some information about his career , because Bill wants to present him for nomination into the Ohio Track and Field Coaches' Hall of Fame.  He had already been inducted into the NCAA Div. II Hall of Fame in 2012.  Bout time Ohio caught up.

At the peak of his career in 1963 Les was often misidentified as an Austrian or a Hungarian refugee of which he is neither.   His grandparents emigrated to the US after WWI, and his mother was born in Pennsylvania.  However the family moved back to Hungary and Les was born there in 1937.   After the war, his mother was easily able to get permission to come back to the States as she was a citizen by birth.  So in 1947, Les arrived as a twelve-year old not speaking a word of English.  He went through the Cleveland school system also was given his American citizenship.  He is clear to tell you that he was not a refugee.  Later his father was able to join the family after bribing his way out of Hungary.   So he was also not part of the Hungarian revolution in 1956.  After high school Les was first mentored by Julius Penzes a refugee and former member of the Hungarian national team.  He was not allowed to compete for Hungary in the 1956 Olympics because of what was considered unsocialistic sentiments.  He had been ranked seventh in the world at 10,000 meters in 1953.  Julius lived for many years in Oakland, CA, but his home was destroyed in forest fires that descended on the city in the 1990's.   He has since moved to rural Oregon.

In Part 2 of this piece we will talk about a unique track and field museum hidden in the bowels of Central Ohio.
John Macy and Les Hegedus at the USTFF national meet that Les won in 1963 in Columbus, Ohio

Steve Price, Les Hegedus, George Brose, and Bill Schnier
Les , Bill Schnier and Margaret Hegedus

Les and Julius Penzes

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