Keeping Pace: 1945 – 1970

Emil S. Liston

Emil S. Liston

World War II saw a decline in the number of male students causing the Baker University intercollegiate sports of football and track and field to be cancelled for the 1944 and 1945 seasons. The Baker University Athletic Department experienced a dramatic change when Emil Liston resigned as Athletic Director, and football and track and field coach in 1946. At that time Liston was heavily involved in the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball (NAIB) the forerunner to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). Following his resignation from Baker, he served as the organizations first full-time executive director. He held this position until his death in 1949.

In his absences, the responsibilities of all three of Liston’s positions at Baker were given to Karl Spear, a committed coach an alumnus of Baker University. The trio of responsibilities likely over burdened Coach Spear and led to decline in the team aspect of the track and field program. The arrangement of the Baker University Athletic Department included only two coaches who worked together to assist on another. Retired art Professor and former Baker University student-athlete Walt Bailey explains that, “both took primary responsibility for a ‘major’ sport – [one] for football and [one] for basketball – and they ‘shared’ track as the other ‘major’ sport.” This arrangement was not the most ideal to develop successful athletes. Bailey believes it was a challenge for the coaches and athletes alike as they constantly strived for improvement,

[one coach] worked with the running program – particularly the sprints and middle distance runners.  [The other coach] worked with the field events and distance runners.  [The coaches] tried to find ways that everyone would work in both areas and have some interaction with each of them.  This didn’t always work, as in my case.  I was too slow for anything, but that didn’t keep them from working me on the cinders!  [H]aving two men managing all athletes in every event was more than could be reasonably accomplished.  Some of us simply worked to ‘coach’ one another.  And we actually got help from our rivals at other colleges. Those of us who spent time together at [meets] would often discuss what we were currently doing to improve our workouts and performance.  I don’t think that is particularly exceptional – people like to help one another, particularly in individual events where they have some expertise.  [The coaches] would also do the same kinds of things by speaking with their coaching friends to find out what they would do to ‘get better results’ from their athletes.  Generally, the sense I always had was that my coaches wanted me to perform against my own abilities and past performance.  It was not enough for me to win an event if I didn’t at least approach my own ‘standard.’

Despite these difficulties, Spear was able to guide several individuals to strong performances. In fact in 1952, the NAIA, brainchild of former Baker University Athletic Director Emil Liston, held the first national championship competition for track and field in Abilene, Texas. Two Baker University athletes competed in this first national championship event, Palmer Mai and Ken Stearns. Stearns tied for fifth place in the high jump while Mai was the national runner-up in the 220-yard low hurdles. The next year Mai earned the distinction as Baker University’s only National Champion in track and field history and first All-American.

In reflecting on his experience at the national meet, Mai said, “I didn’t know I could win. I was very happy. The guy who got fourth in the race the year I won, won the high [hurdles], and went on to win the Olympics in 1956 and 1960.” The event was held in Abilene, Texas, Mai recalled, and the setup for the 220-yard low hurdles was quite a bit different from what he was used to. “They had them set up in an L-shape. On one curve and one straight, we had to run a full curve, which I wasn’t used to.”

In addition to his experience at nationals Mai offered a glimpse into what track and field was like during the 1950s and the experiences he had as an athlete. The Baker University Track and Field team competed in the first Emporia Relays in 1950. Mai remembered competing as a member of the 480-yard shuttle hurdle relay. “They alternated lows and highs on a straightaway, one man would run lows one direction then slap his teammates hand and he would run highs back the other direction, and so on, until all four had run.”

During his career Mai predominantly ran the low hurdles, his best event. He ran the high hurdles and the 100 dash on occasion. In fact, although the team never won a conference title, Mai individually won the “high points” awards two years at the conference meet, which was awarded to the person who scored the most points in the meet.

Mai found himself at Baker University in part because his older brother also attended. However, both Mai’s high school principal and football coach were alumni, and influenced his decision. Mai’s principal was Donald Lidiaky holder of the Baker University record for 440-yards, which Mai recalled thinking it was an impressive feat.

Palmer Mai graduated in 1954 with a degree in Economics and Business Administration, and served two years in the army after being drafted. Mai continued his association with the sport of track and field by serving as a meet director for the Missouri Valley Amateur Athletic Union (AAU).This role with the AAU took him Mexico City Olympics as a member of the AAU delegation, an experience he fondly remembers today. “We were at the Olympics for seven days. I remember there being a strong military presence, and I was in attendance for the Black Power demonstration on the medal stand.”

After Mai, Baker University Track and Field would not have another All-American until 1990, although individuals still shined during the 1950s and 1960s. Support from the University improved as well. The 1953 yearbook finally gave Track and Field credit, describing it as “the third varsity sport and one in which Baker has always excelled is track.” An indicator of the accuracy of this statement is the fact that in 1953 Baker University athletes held records in eight events out of the fifteen contested at the annual KCAC Track and Field meet.

Baker University Track and Field Team circa 1958 - 1963

Baker University Track and Field Team circa 1958 – 1963

James Irick an alumnus of Baker University became the Head Basketball Coach and the new assistant coach for Track and Field to Karl Spear, replacing long time assistant Russ Davee in 1958. The coaching arrangement in the Baker University Athletic Department between Spear and Irick followed in the same manner that it had before Irick’s arrival, with the struggle to provide adequate tutelage remaining. These years can be best described by using the experiences of a self-described “mediocre high hurdler,” Ron Holland. Holland a three-year letterman described the process by which he lettered as “out-of-the-ordinary.”

There were two ways to ‘letter’ on the track team. One was to get enough points, by winning races in the few other meets, Or by placing at the conference meet. I placed fifth at the conference meet in a rather unusual way. The track at Kansas Wesleyan had only six lanes for hurdles. Two flights were run, with the three winners of each flight qualifying for the finals. The best hurdlers were in the first flight and the rest of us in the second flight. I placed in the top three of the second flight and ran in the finals. There were five places to be won in the finals. For three years straight, I qualified for the finals when one runner fell down each year. I just had to finish. I finished fifth and I lettered.

These accounts by Holland reflect on the Baker University Track and Field Program’s character and ability to always compete, striving for the best despite not always having the best circumstances.

The irony of Holland’s athletic lettering story can be seen during his senior season in spring of 1961,

A couple of weeks into the season I nicked a hurdle and fell head over heels on the cinder track. It was my first real fall as a hurdler. As I stood in the shower trying to scrub the cinders out of my knees, elbows and hip, I decided that I didn’t need to do track this year. I had no gear to turn in, so I just told coach Irick that I was finished for the season.

Holland described the track facilities during his four years as “fairly primitive,” at least in comparison to modern tracks. He recalls that the lines on the track were not permanent but instead chalk that was laid in much the same manner that football fields were marked. During Holland’s sophomore year Baker University got new hurdles with aluminum legs and a wooden cross-bar, theses hurdles replaced earlier hurdles that were made exclusively of wood.

Like Mai, Holland went on to have a success career and life after his career at Baker University ended. He married his wife Marcia Brickey in August of 1960, and following their graduation from Baker University they went on to have three children, and now have five grandchildren. A Sociology major and psychology minor, Holland went on to become a United Methodist Minister receiving degrees from Garrett Theological Seminary and the Saint Paul School of Theology. Holland was given an honorary Doctor of Divinity by Baker University in 1996. Marci Holland, his wife, was a longtime schoolteacher and now writes books, although both are retired.

Duane Gabrielson, 1966 KCAC 110m Hurdle Champion

Duane Gabrielson, 1966 KCAC 110m Hurdle Champion

Assistant Coach Irick would later succeed Spear in 1964, taking on the responsibilities of coaching football, serving as Director of Athletics and becoming the Head Track and Field Coach. Appearing to be a capable coach, Irick’s team placed second in the 1965 KCAC meet. Kitrick Colvin helped the team to this strong finish by setting a school and conference record in the shot put in 1965. However, the meet was highlighted by freshman Walter Pickett’s conference championships in three events, the long jump, high jump and triple jump. Following Colvin’s lead, John Philpot established his own school and conference records in the shot put, and finished first in every competition in 199 and 1967. Success was intermittent under Irick as the team slipped to fifth in the KCAC in 1966. Although success soon returned when the school Distance Medley Record, was set by the team of Hawk, Chatham, McGrew, and Williams, in 1967. Coach Irick continued to serve into the next period, overseeing the transition from the KCAC into the newly formed Heart of American Athletic Conference (HAAC), which began in the 1970-71 school year.