Story and photos by Ken Stone
In recent years, this Olympic legend has been honored by President Obama, revered by Native American groups and cheered amid his moving speeches.
The Camp Pendleton Marine who made history with his stunning upset victory in the 10,000-meter run at the 1964 Tokyo Games sat quietly in a packed restaurant, unmolested by fans.
And no wonder. He was just one of scores of track and field greats, including a dozen Olympians and several Hall of Fame coaches.
Mills, 76, and his wife, Pat, enjoyed a moment out of the limelight at a luncheon celebrating the “Golden Age of Track and Field.”
“I’ve never seen so many damn old men in my life,” said 88-year-old Jim Bush, the famed former track coach at UCLA and USC.Said another, reflecting the sport’s less than sparkling current status: “There’s more people here today than come out to a track meet.” (The final count was 114.)
A third attendee at Spaghettini in Seal Beach simply said: “I’m just in awe of everyone in this room.”
Olympic medalists abounded, including Bob Seagren (pole vault gold 1968 and silver 1972) and Ron Morris (pole vault silver 1960). Also taking part in track chatter were four-time Olympic long jumper Martha Watson and 1956 Hungarian Olympic defector László Tábori (1500-meter world record setter).
Bob Larsen was there, bringing the house down during his turn at a pass-around microphone. He introduced himself not as the coach of Boston Marathon winner Meb Keflezighi and many other Olympians but for his roots as a Minnesota farm boy.
(Larsen ran for Hoover High, graduated from San Diego State graduate and coached at Monte Vista High School in Spring Valley and Grossmont College in El Cajon before succeeding Bush at UCLA in a Hall of Fame career.)
Doug Smith, a former Occidental College star, helped organize the luncheon — reviving an annual reunion that used to meet in Newport Beach and attract the likes of USC Olympian Louis Zamperini, whose story is told in the movie “Unbroken.”
Smith said J.W. Mashburn, a 1956 Olympic gold medalist in the 4×400 relay, journeyed from Oklahoma City, and Richard Barton (formerly of Cal State Los Angeles) traveled from Tennessee.
Smith, who competed in the 1960 Olympic Trials as a sprinter, wasn’t even the only Doug Smith at the luncheon. (The other was a 1965 graduate of Long Beach State.)
So many former junior college track coaches were present that more than a dozen posed for pictures. The biggest turnouts by school were USC, Long Beach State and Occidental. The oldest attendee may have been Pitch Johnson, a quarter-miler for Stanford who graduated in 1950.
One section of Spaghettini was dubbed the Vaulters Corner. Reminiscing there, besides Seagren and Morris, were former world indoor record-holder Steve Smith, ex-high school record-holder Casey Carrigan and Australian Olympian Don Baird, among others. (Smith later performed a Tarzan yell, a la Don Bragg, a gold-medal vaulter who played the movie role.)
Seated at one round table were early 1960s Kansas University long jumper (and NCAA champion) Ernie Shelby, sub-4 miler Bill Dotson and sprinter Bob Covey, a teammate of Mills.
Shelby, the first African-American to captain a Jayhawks track team (and helped them win their first NCAA title), had recently visited KU for a Martin Luther King Day event. He told his lunch partners how, in the days of Jim Crow, his white teammates voted to return to Lawrence rather than allow a Kansas City hotel to deny lodging to him and another black teammate.
Covey recalled how Al Oerter, the four-time Olympic champion in the discus, confided that his improvement to all-time bests in the early 1980s were due to steroids (saying they were in common use).
Coach Bush confided that, after many years coaching at UCLA, he had a different view of USC after he got there.
“I found out they weren’t the nasty Trojans,” he said. “They were the damn good Trojans.” But Bush wore a UCLA color at the buffet luncheon — a blue warmup suit.
Ron Allice, a successor to Bush as USC track coach, arranged for the restaurant to reserve two-thirds of its space for the luncheon. (It helped that the future owner of Spaghettini was one of Allice’s athletes when he coached at Long Beach City College.)
Among the first people Allice embraced was Olympic high jumper Doug Nordquist, who spent time telling stories about his cousin Dwight Stones (the former world record-holder and Olympian).
Sid Wing, who helped contact fellow USC alumni, dated himself as “1955-56-57” and brought laughter by labeling himself a “middle-distance runner — which means I was a sprinter who failed.”
The luncheon was such a success, however, that Smith said he expected 130 to attend next year.
Billy Mills, who looked “happy to be a wallflower” in the words of one observer, might be among them.
“My impression was he enjoyed the event immensely — partly because he wasn’t the center of attention and didn’t have to perform,” the observer said.
Every attendee had a brief turn at the mic. When it was handed to Mills, he noted his alma mater and little else.
But he said: “Still a Marine.”
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