Indiana County’s first state track champion, paradoxically, hardly ever ran on a track.
While others glided over well-groomed cinder ovals, James “Boots” Williams and his Blairsville High teammates spent the spring of 1951 practicing on a less-than-ideal surface: grass. That back story only serves to elevate Williams’ Class B 440-yard dash title into the realm of the miraculous.
For he and the Bobcats faced obstacles of a sort that would have crushed the spirit of lesser teams.
“We had no track or nothing to run on, which made it kind of rough,” said 1951 Blairsville grad Ed Bauman, a resident of Josephine who retired after working as a block operator for the Pennsylvania Railroad, Penn Central Railroad and Conrail. “We’d just run around the football field. You know how [beneficial] that would be. A couple times we went up to Kiski Prep in Saltsburg and practiced on their track. The only other time we ran on a track was when we went to different schools for meets.”
Despite that disadvantage, Williams was able to reign as the pre-eminent quarter-miler in the state. He went on to run for two years at Indiana University in Bloomington, served in the Air Force, operated a lawn care business and then worked in maintenance at Moffett Field, a joint civil-military airport in Mountain View, Calif., before retiring in 1991. Williams died in 2003 at the age of 70.
During his senior year at Blairsville he surmounted overwhelming odds to claim a PIAA championship. The lack of a track wasn’t the only hurdle Williams had to clear en route to a first-place medal at Penn State. The Bobcats also lacked a coach — at least a knowledgeable one.
Blairsville’s program had been revived only the year before following an absence of more than a decade. Clarence Aikey, who guided the Bobcats’ football team, was hired as coach, even though, Bauman noted, “He really didn’t know too much about track.”
Aikey, aware of his limitations, ultimately sought outside assistance — from a student.
“He had one of the guys from Derry, Bob Meininger, come over to show us techniques in some of the events,” recalled former Bobcats sprinter Seth Gibson, who lives in Blairsville and worked at Westinghouse Electric in Derry before retiring. “For instance, the broad jump and high jump, and some of the starts for the races. He actually showed Coach Aikey and the whole team.”
This excerpt from a season preview story published in the March 26, 1951, edition of the Indiana Evening Gazette underscores Aikey’s unfamiliarity with the sport: “The Blairsville High mentor has been pleased with the work of a number of the boys. Showing considerable promise as a high jumper is Boots Williams. Aikey is counting on him to surprise district opposition.”
The real surprise is that Williams’ transcendent speed is never mentioned. Did Aikey not realize what a superlative sprinter he had on his hands? He would in due time, of course: Williams proved invincible as a quarter-miler that year … and beyond.
“I don’t remember him ever losing a 440,” Gibson said. “As a matter of fact, when he went to Indiana after high school, according to him he was never beaten out there, either.”
Williams’ performance in the Indiana County Meet, held at the Indiana fairgrounds, provided the first indication that he was destined to dominate the event. He blistered the field in 50.2 seconds, shattering the old record of 51.6 set by Indiana’s Bill Eicher in 1939. Williams also won the 880 in record time (2:08.7), eclipsing the previous standard set in 1940 by Blairsville’s Isadore Gibson — Seth Gibson’s first cousin.
He punched his ticket to Penn State a week later by winning the District 6 title at Altoona’s Mansion Park in 52.2 seconds. Williams celebrated a second victory in the mile relay, teaming with Bob Bailey, Bill White and Ken McCracken to clock a 3:41.9. In addition, Bauman won the mile and Ken Smith finished second in the pole vault, giving Blairsville six representatives in four events for the PIAA meet.
A Blairsville Dispatch story from May 25, 1951, expressed hope that the Bobcats would deliver a title in at least one of those events the next day.
“A state championship for Blairsville High in the face of the odds which the track squad has experienced,” noted the Dispatch, “would be a real feather in the caps of the winners and also Coach Aikey, who has overcome many obstacles in giving the local school a track team in a revival of the popular spring sport which has been dormant at the North Walnut Street school for several years.”
Williams supplied the feather with his victory in the 440. He broke the tape in 51.2, “a fraction of a second above the state [meet] record,” according to the Dispatch. Clair Stumpf of Dallastown finished second and Fred Ryan of Lawrence Park placed third.
Times were not published for non-winners in newspapers back then, and various accounts did not address the subject, so there’s no way of knowing whether Williams eased to victory or nipped Stumpf at the tape, whether he led from start to finish or made a furious charge from behind. Not even Bauman, who was present, is able to clarify matters.
“To tell you the truth, I don’t remember,” he said. “I imagine Boots was leading the whole way. I mean, the way he ran, nobody could keep up with him.”
Blairsville scored points in two other events: Williams anchored the mile relay team to a fourth-place finish and Bauman, who was battling the flu, snagged third place in the mile. The Bobcats tied for sixth in the Class B standings, an extraordinary feat under the circumstances.
“Yeah, we had a pretty good team back then for not having a place to run,” Bauman said. “We did real well at that state meet.”
Led by Boots Williams, who could run like the wind — especially with cinders underfoot. *