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Fridays with Fred: The first running of the Beloit Relays

View the origins of the Beloit Relays!

When new Athletic Director Lou Means began his duties in 1936, he took note of the college’s spanking new stadium, an impressive Art Deco-style concrete structure designed by Chicago architects Allen and Webster. Eager to boost a moribund track and field program, an idea began to form in his mind. Why not host an event for small liberal arts colleges, similar to the famous Drake University Relays held for larger institutions? President Irving Maurer, no doubt thinking that a bit of pageantry might boost the morale of a college and community struggling through the Great Depression, gave Means the green light.

On Friday, May 28, 1937, Coach Means stepped outside and surveyed the sky. The air was damp and some distant clouds looked like they might harbor a storm. He walked back inside, fingers crossed. After months of careful planning, the success of the college’s first annual “Beloit Relays” depended on the weather. An afternoon event, the 100-yard dash, went off without a hitch, but by early evening, a soft breeze from the southeast tickled the colorful school pennants lit by the floodlights at Strong Stadium and thunder rumbled like bowling balls rolling for a strike down the hardwood floor of Smith Gymnasium.

The rain held off. At 7:35, the Beloit College Band, sporting blue and gold capes, marched onto Hancock field and over to the bleachers, where they treated 2,000 spectators to the national anthem and college songs. Relay officials arrived next, wearing dark coats, light trousers, and “tropical hats” shaped like goldfish bowls, according to one report. Relay Queen “Corki” Crain and her attendants rolled along the track in a resplendent new automobile, stopping at a flowery bower—where, following a spectacular fireworks display, she welcomed the crowd to the night’s festivities.

“Thrush-throated” announcer, Ted Canty, famous for calling the Drake Relays and announcing Chicago Golden Gloves boxing matches, tried out the fancy public address system but, according to the Beloit Daily News, decided that the “new-fangled mechanical device could not do justice to his pear-shaped tones” and so the crowd heard his resonant voice through an old-fashioned megaphone.

At 8:15, Beloit alumnus Pat Dawson (serving as referee and starter) brandished his “trusty shootin’ iron” and sent the runners dashing on the 400-yard relay. Events included relays and hurdles at a variety of distances, and field events such as shot-put, discus throw, javelin throw, high jump, and broad jump. The pole vault was one of the most highly anticipated events, featuring outstanding athlete Lloyd Seibert of North Central, described by the Daily News as “a willowy, supple party of no more than medium height.” He did not disappoint, vaulting 13 feet, five inches on his second try, a full foot and four inches higher than the previous record at Beloit College. The Daily News explained why Seibert was unable to try again: “As he kerplopped, all legs, into the landing pit he unhinged a muscle and had to be content with the knowledge that he had vaulted far higher than anyone in the history of the local field.”

“Bombs bursting in air” marked the close of the Beloit Relays at 10:30 p.m. By the end of the evening, Coe College reigned triumphant, accumulating 60 points, while Beloit College achieved second, scoring 45 points. Beloit won the two-mile relay in 8 minutes and 28.8 seconds with a thrilling finale as Beloiter “Tick” Klock ran neck-and-neck with a Cornell runner, eventually beating him to the tape with a ten-yard advantage.

Counting Beloit, 146 athletes from 12 colleges competed in the initial Beloit Relays, numbers which would grow considerably in later years. At the Awards Ceremony, Queen Crain and her court handed out beautiful plaques to each winning relay team as well as bronze medals depicting Strong Stadium to the top athletes.

As architect of the successful debut track and field festival, Lou Means had every reason to feel ecstatic, but not complacent. After a deep breath or two and a hearty pat on the back from President Maurer, he soon found himself in the throes of planning an even bigger extravaganza for 1938.

September 15, 2011

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