Enduring Personalities

Enduring Personalities

Enduring Personalities

I'm approaching the age at which one starts noting the changing of

familiar events and yes, faces. Races, gatherings, even workouts are

slowly evolving, incorporating new people, new experiences, new

challenges. As the saying goes, the only constant is change. That's life,

I guess. But I find myself grasping at the remaining cornerstones more

firmly these days, probably because they represent a part of my life that

I'm not quite willing to relinquish.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, partly because at 20 years

removed from high school I have enough of a vantage point to do so, and

partly because a the changes seem to be coming at a faster rate these

days. Races are disappearing, coaches are retiring, the cadre of women

against whom I compete is losing some of its veteran members to careers,

motherhood, and other activities while a new group of fresh young faces is

arriving on the scene. While all of this is exciting and, after all,

inevitable, it makes encountering one of the cornerstones that much


This past weekend my husband and I attended a meet at the University of

Michigan indoor track. As we entered the building and took our seats, I

was amazed to see a familiar, wizened figure holding court at the

start/finish line. "That can't be Kermit!" I said in surprise. Rich

squinted. "Yep, sure looks like it," he said. Sure enough, Kermit Ambrose,

at nearly 91 years old the "Uebermeister" of Michigan track officiating,

was back for another season of keeping runners on their toes and behind

the line.

Scott Hubbard wrote an excellent column for this website describing

Kermit's 90 birthday party last January. As Scott's column notes, Kermit

has been a part of the cross country and track scene for seven decades.

Certainly I can't remember a time when Kermit wasn't involved with racing.

My first encounter with him was in 1980, at MSU's high school Spartan

Relays. This massive event, which drew top talent from across the lower

peninsula, was my first experience at a "major" track meet. I was entered

in the 2-mile. The field was large, with more than two rows of girls

cramming the waterfall start. We were all nervous, of course. Kermit

called us to the line. One girl, a state-ranked runner and the race

favorite, opted to do a couple more "strides" before reporting to the

line. Big mistake. "Young lady, are you in this race?" Kermit hollered,

drowning out the chaos of Jenison Field House. She looked up, surprised,

and hustled over to the line, where everyone was already in place and

waiting. "No, you don't," Kermit said. "Everyone's already in place. You

weren't here. Get to the back." He made her line up on the outside of the

last row - the worst possible position in a large field. "My God, this

guy's a tyrant!" I thought. "Why does he do this if he hates it so much?"

He didn't hate it, of course; it was just Kermit's way of keeping things

moving. Shut up and follow directions.

My second "up close and personal" experience with Kermit occurred more

than a decade later, when I was competing in an open 3000 at Eastern

Michigan University. Also in the field was Lisa Larsen Weidenbach, the

Michigan running legend who was fresh off her third, fourth-place finish

at the Olympic Marathon Trials. Lisa was training for the 10,000 meters

and was using shorter indoor races to sharpen her speed. Again, Kermit

called us to the line. In an almost identical reply of the Spartan Relays

incident, Lisa opted to do a few more strides down the backstretch after

we had been called to the line. Kermit looked down the track. His eyes

narrowed. I stiffened. "Young lady, are you in this race?" He bellowed,

drowning out the chaos of Bowen Field House. Lisa looked up and ran her

fastest stride back to the line. This field was smaller, so we all fit in

one row. But Lisa was still given the place of dis-honor on the far end.

The counterpart to Kermit in my husband's life is a colorful guy named

Dinny Noonan. Dinny has been the official starter for thousands of high

school cross-country and track fields, and numerous road races, large and

small. Like me with Kermit, Rich can't remember a time without Dinny.

Unlike Kermit, however, Dinny is outgoing, enthusiastic, and friendly. "Hi

ya, Champ, how ya doin'?" He greets runners young and old. Known as "Two

Gun" for his starter/recall pistols (he even has a vanity license plate:

"2GUN"), he wrings every ounce of enthusiasm possible out of starting a

race, from hollering the instructions to greeting all the runners in the

front row (many of whom he's watched grow up), to cheering them at the

finish. Dinny has started dual meets, state championship meets, major road

races, and two-bit fun runs with equal pleasure and enthusiasm. Unlike

Kermit, no one ever had the idea that Dinny hated what he did.

Dinny was the official starter of the Berwick Run for the Diamonds for

goodness knows how many years. He's a part of the Berwick legend, as

unique as the course and the diamond awards. A special aspect of the race

for Rich is the opportunity to see Dinny with the starter's gun and hear

the familiar greeting: "how ya doin', Champ?"

Dinny didn't make it to Berwick this year, and judging from the full-page

ad in the race program thanking him for his "many years of loyal service,"

he isn't expected to return. There was a palpable sadness at the start,

the realization that a special era had come to an end. As bad as I felt

for all the runners who've known him throughout the decades, I'm sure it

was extremely tough on Dinny, knowing that this was the year it wasn't

going to happen. How hard it must be to realize that an activity that has

been so much a part of your adult life is coming to an end. But how

wonderful to think about all the people you've met and influenced along

the way.

With thoughts of Dinny in the back of my mind, it was a special pleasure

to see Kermit on Saturday. Although his steps have slowed and his bark has

probably softened a bit (pure speculation on my part), he was still fully

involved, calling runners to the line, marshalling the turns, even helping

set up the hurdles (I, in contrast, had difficultly standing up straight

when the meet was over). I hope to see him for many more years - one

cornerstone that continues to endure. I've thought about approaching him

to thank him for all his years of service, but I can imagine the response

I'd get: a somewhat surprised look followed by an order to get off the

track if I wasn't a participant.

A few months ago I wrote a column expressing my admiration for high school

coaches. I'd like to extend that same admiration to the thousands of

dedicated people who, like Kermit and Dinny, have served as marshals,

starters, timers, and chief cook-and-bottle-washers at all the high school

and college meets that take place each year. Those of you who have been

around a while understand the sacrifice and dedication. For others who are

just getting started in this terrific sport, please realize that these

people make it possible for you to have the opportunity to compete. And

you might want to give them a word of thanks the next time you have a

chance - just for the heck of it.