National Track and Field Hall of Fame

Charleston Gazette
November 29, 1976

'Hall' Ceremonies Beautiful, Except to the Cows

By Danny Wells

It didn't rain on Don Cohen's parade Saturday morning.

While rain was predicted, the sun came down instead. It was a beautiful morning in Putnam County. Don Cohen is a Charleston optometrist who is better known for producing sports spectaculars in Charlestom. [sic] He is an expert at organizing parades. Every September he sees to it that nearly 1,000 people parade though the streets of Charleston in their shorts.

Saturday morning, Cohen had another parade going. This one took place in Putnam County between the Hurricane and Winfield interchanges off Interstate 64.

There they were. All kinds of people walking through cow pastures, walking ever so carefully toward a particular area which had been roped just for the occasion. The local cows didn't know what the hell was going on. There were a lot of nervous moos.

It was about a mile walk for the nondignitaries. A pleasant walk on a warm morning with a slight breeze. The dignitaries were hauled in Army trucks, which didn't look all that dignified. You had to walk about a half-mile before seeing the destination. Above the moos came the sound of the Hurricane High School band.

If you had a weird mind, thoughts of a country funeral might come up. Get the picture. Up ahead was a group of people gathered in a circle in the middle of a big field. And there were shovels. Lots of shovels. One shovel had five handles. Then there were 14 more shovels. But you don't need that many shovels to bury somebody. You need that many shovels to build something. And to feed egos.

Don Cohen's parade toward this special place continued for another half-hour. There were kids and their parents. Teenagers. And television newsmen. The kind that tell you to move out of their way all the time. And there were cameras. There must have been 200 cameras. Then after you get used to the idea of hundreds of people walking (carefully) through a cow pasture toward this place in the middle of nowhere, then you have to get used to the people who got out of the Army trucks. Some people never did adjust to that.

There were Dwight Stones, the greatest high jumper in the world who covets controversy; Olympic decathlon champion Bruce Jenner, who looks like Pete Rose should look if the baseball player were handsome; Bob Hayes, who had outrun hundreds of people wearing shorts and hundreds more wearing shoulder pads; Ralph Boston, the former broad jumper who looks like a tourist the way he was taking pictures; and Jesse Owens, who may always be the Main Man in track and field.

There were many more famous athletes that the rest of us had seen only on television or at one of Cohen's other extravaganzas. But it was quite a sight seeing many of the greatest athletes in the world grouped together in the middle of a Putnam County cow pasture.

There were touching moments that morning. And there were some humorous times, especially for people with weird minds. When former sprinter Ralph Metcalf, who is now a Congressman, was giving the prayer, he referred to Don Cohen as "Don Rose." But that wasn't so bad since both Cohen and Jack Rose have worked so hard together to get to this day.

It probably was more humorous when Cohen, Gov. Moore and Owens started the digging. Cohen turned a couple of shovelfuls and then turned to shake hands with Moore. But The Guv was still digging. And so Cohen's hand was just kind of out there in space while Moore kept digging. If you have a weird mind, you could have imagined Moore building the entire Hall of Fame right there on the spot. Or you could get a picture of Moore imagining he was digging a huge grave for a certain tall democrat he had once slain but who had risen to seize the throne. That is, if you had a weird mind.

But Moore finally stopped diggitig and then everybody got down to some serious handshaking.

At times the whole thing seemed unreal. Three years ago, Cohen spent most of time with his glasses and his family. Three years ago Jesse Owens knew he belonged in a track Hall of Fame but also knew there wasn't such a thing. And three year[s] ago, Gov. Moore didn't know one of many future battles with the state legislature would be over funds for a Track Hall of Fame in His state.

But they were all there Saturday morning, including Cohen's family.

Don Cohen has a beautiful family. There is Betsy, 14; Leslie, 17; Zoe, 15: Brad, 19 and Flora Lee, none of your business. Bright people. Fun to be around. Years from now each of the kids will be trying to answer a question over and over again:

"How in the world did your dad. who was an optometrist, ever get involved with a track hall of fame?"

It would be interesting to hear their answer.

The entire ceremony took about an hour. Three flags were raised which can be seen from the Interstate. Look for them over to the left a couple of miles after you pass the Winfield interchange going towards Huntington. And there were speeches.

Easily the most popular athlete in the crowd was Jenner, "the best athlete in the world," who may not be able to play football worth a lick. Jenner signed his name a hundred times and didn't seem to mind. He even signed a guy's shirt.

Jenner appears to be sure of himself when it comes to his new world of dangling dollar bills which will replace all that amateur stuff where applause and medals were the "only" rewards.

"I'm just going to be myself," said Jenner as he signed his name for a cute thing who addressed him as "Brucie."

Jenner was presented with a blue Hall of Fame blazer. Trouble is, someone stole a button from it. And the hanger which came with the coat. Souvenirs for hero worshippers. And Jenrier can't even sing.

Does he still work out?

"No, I don't have time."

"Then I guess you've gained weight."

"Naw. I've LOSTeight pounds."

When the ceremonies were over and everybody except Wade Utay had taken a turn at digging a hole in the ground, the parade of people started back to Route 34 where the nondignitaries had parked their cars. The dignitaries departed in those undignified Army trucks.

Cohen still had Saturday night in front of him. And that was the disappointing part for a man who is used to hurdling disappointments. Alan King, Roberta Flack and Spinners were to entertain at the Civic Center in a benefit show to raise money for the Hall of Fame.

But a "benefit performance" does not mean a free performance. The performers were paid plenty. And the ticket sales were slow.

"By the way, Don, where's the money coming from to pay the singers?"

"You're looking at it," he said without a trace of a smile.

The crowd didn't seem so small that night. About 3,000. But it wasn't enough to make any money for the Hall of Fame. It was too bad, too, for the people who didn't see the show. King was funny. And it's worth more than $10 to hear Roberta Flack sing "Killing Me Softly. "Or to see The Spinners dance with rubber bands.

But Cohen still is way ahead of the game. He could have stayed in his office duririg the past five years and worked on glasses, eyeballs and nothing else. But he didn't. And because he didn't, many of the world's top athletes have visited West Virginia for the first time in their lives. And because he didn't, we have a 15-mile distance run every September that is pure class as an athletic event.

And there's a National Track and Field Hall of Fame being built in Putnam County. It's too bad private money couldn't have been used to build the facility. The AAU, NCAA and other governing bodies in track and field should have helped get the money. But it didn't happen.

But I'm looking forward to the day when we'll be driving out to Putnam County to see the Olympic trials and many other top track events.

It didn't rain on Don Cohen's parade Saturday...Instead, it was a beautiful morning...