They all showed up for the man in the black baseball cap.
By Tim Sullivan '78 and Dave Castle '78
It had been almost thirty years since some of them had seen each other—a long time for a group of men who had spent so many hours together, and who had once shared so much in common. Here they were in Bush Park in Salem, Ore. on July 3, 2009, picking up with each other as if no time had passed at all.
They came from all over the country; Jerry Rea from Kansas, Dave Castle from Ohio, and Dirk French from Washington, D.C. Denis Villeneuve had made the drive down Interstate 5 from the Seattle area. For Brad Johnson, living in Portland, it was not a long trip. Jim Green only had to come across town. They gathered around Scott Van Jacob (nee Jacob), the man who had brought them together. Scott, who traveled from Indiana, was dying.
These men were now a psychologist, a historian, a government analyst, teacher, an accountant, an entrepreneur, and an academic librarian; but collectively, three decades earlier, each had been a part of the 1977 cross-country team at WOU, then known as Oregon College of Education (OCE). In the sport of cross-country, the race is a defined number of miles. There’s a start and finish, and success is determined on how you perform that day. For the 1977 OCE cross-country team, however, that path extended well past the finish line in college and led to personal and professional successes that transcended a single race.
This was the team that was “supposed” to have a championship season. By the fall of 1977, OCE had a formidable reputation with a history of champion cross-country and track seasons. In 1972, 1973, and 1974, OCE had captured the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) District 2 cross-country title. After two rebuilding years, coach Don Spinas assembled a team of veterans, transfers, and new recruits to challenge for the title once again. Senior Dave Castle had been the District champion in 1974 and seemed to have returned to form. Brad Johnson, Jerry Rea, Denis Villeneuve, Dave Martin, and Jim Green were all talented runners who were transfer students.
Rea had been an Oregon high school state champion in the two-mile, while Martin came from the storied running program of South Eugene High School. Scott Van Jacob and Dirk French, both of whom who would later set school records in track for OCE, were returning members of the team. Coach Spinas believed they were the “best small college team” in the Northwest. That fall the school newspaper ran a story on the team, emphasizing the potential of a championship. The photo of the team was captioned “Super Talent.”
Regretfully, the 1977 season did not unfold as anticipated. Both Johnson and Van Jacob ended up unable to compete due to injuries and “redshirted” the season. Despite sparks of brilliance in training, the team’s overall performance remained mediocre, culminating in a disappointing fifth place finish at the District Championships in Salem’s Bush Park. Jim Green led the team with a 17th place finish.
Villeneuve, who admitted that he was not one of the team’s top runners, said he knew during the race that it was not going well for the Wolves when he was passing the top runners on his squad. According to Green, “I was the number two or number three finisher on the team during the season and at district, I ended up the top finisher. I didn’t know what happened.”
It seemed like a crushing defeat at the time; but in the long term, the members of that 1977 team regrouped, worked harder, and focused on finding success in the future. By 1980, all of the team had graduated except Jim Green. A number of years elapsed before all of these young men found their chosen career. Castle and Van Jacob lived together in a house in Monmouth for a few years, working odd jobs (including a shared custodial position at the OCE student center). They formed the Greater Monmouth Track Club, which all of the members of the 1977 team competed for at some point in their post-collegiate running careers. Green worked at a health food store in Salem, while French worked for Fred Meyer.
In the fall of 1982, Castle left Monmouth for Eugene, where he began graduate studies in history at the University of Oregon. His desire to study history was fostered by his instructors at OCE, including Gary Huxford and Ross Cotroneo. “I loved taking classes from Dr. Huxford and Dr. Cotroneo,” Castle remarked, “I saw their passion for history and teaching, and I wanted to be like them.” Castle received his Ph.D. in 1991, and moved to Ohio to begin his career at Muskingum College. He began teaching for Ohio University in 1994 and is currently the faculty chairperson for the Eastern Campus of Ohio University in St Clairsville.
Scott Van Jacob – like his good friend Dave Castle – also made his way to the Midwest for professional reasons. After teaching in Medellin, Columbia for two years, Van Jacob earned a Master’s of Information Science degree at the University of Illinois and took a job at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. He went on to become a Latin American bibliographer at the famed library at the University of Notre Dame. Van Jacob’s Latin American studies work was recognized internationally and at Notre Dame, where he earned the prestigious President’s and Foik awards.
Denis Villeneuve graduated from OCE with an education degree, and parlayed that into a highly successful teaching and coaching career at Redmond High School in Washington, where he has guided several top teams. His boys cross country teams have gone to the state meet and placed in the top 10 the last four years. They also boasted an individual champion in the 2008 race. His girl’s squads have participated in the state meet 11 out of the last 12 years. Villeneuve has taught social studies and coached at Redmond High for 27 years.
Jerry Rea concluded his OCE career not only as a successful runner, but also as a budding psychologist. Inspired by OCE professor Dr. Eric Cooley, who “saw the potential of a kid from a small town,” Rea went on to graduate studies, earning his Ph.D. in human development and family life from the University of Kansas. Author of numerous publications and the holder of a patent, Rea most recently served as the superintendent of the Life-Span Institute at Parsons, which is affiliated with the University of Kansas.
When Brad Johnson enrolled at OCE, he thought he would be a health educator. Instead, he ended up in high finance, where he currently works for Bancorp Financial, the parent company of Standard Insurance. Johnson followed his OCE years at the University of Oregon where he earned his M.B.A., while also obtaining his Certified Public Accountant designation. Today he is the director of cost reporting and analysis in his company’s Portland office.
Dirk French, the youngest of the group, also went on to post-collegiate professional success, working for the United States government in the Real Property Division of the General Services Administration (GSA) in Washington D.C. In his years with the GSA, French worked on the critical Base Realignment and Closure project of the 1990’s.
Jim Green returned to his hometown of Salem. After many years of working in the health food business, Green became one of the founding members of the highly successful Kettle Chips Company. Green did not receive his degree at OCE in the 1970’s, “much to my parents’ chagrin,” he noted. Green recently returned to class and completed his WOU degree in 2009, a success story profiled in the fall 2009 issue of the WOU Alumni Magazine. Today, Green’s title is “Ambassador” for Kettle Chips, which he said is a public relations position.
It seems remarkable, that these seven men, randomly thrown together in 1977 to form a cross country team, went on to collectively achieve what amounts to remarkable professional success – two Ph.D.’s, an MBA, an M.L.S.; and careers as an accountant, psychological hospital superintendent, history professor, government analyst, ambassador for a famous potato chip company, highly successful teacher and coach, and finally, an academic librarian who earned international recognition. How did this team go on to such lofty careers following their days in Monmouth? To a man, they all agree that the discipline of running forged their professional success.
“Having coached distance runners for so many years, I find them hard working, motivated people,” Villeneuve said. “This group at OCE had their act together and was pretty solid in their foundations.” Castle believes “it has something to do with the discipline you learn from running, achieving the most you can with your own physical limitations. It’s a real black and white thing. You’re measured in this real absolute hard and fast way. You can’t fake it and in the real world it’s that way, too.” Rea concurs, and adds that the academic atmosphere at OCE, particularly the faculty, played a critical role in later career successes by “encouraging intellectual curiosity.”
Green, perhaps, was the only one a bit surprised at all the future successes. “I’m not sure I could’ve predicted it,” he says. “At the time we were a wild bunch. We worked hard and played hard.” But beyond the athletic victories and defeats, or even the professional successes, Green saw something even more important: friendship. “We had friendships that were forged through workouts,” Green said. “When I transferred there, it took awhile . . . but eventually we all became brothers.”
Cross-country teammates spend hours everyday in each other’s company. Early morning runs at 6 a.m., two-hour workouts every afternoon, and frequent long runs of an hour or more on the lonely country roads of Polk County create a sense of bonding among teammates. It is a sport that requires tremendous self-discipline. Running in the rain, the cold, and the dark is not easy, but to share that burden makes it easier. It is a friendship that is sometimes, literally, unspoken. “When you run with someone day after day, and mile after mile, you become close,” said Castle. “It may seem odd, but we would sometimes run for miles without even speaking – but we were there, together.”
After decades of being apart, Van Jacob (photo at left) sparked the genesis of reunion. In 2008, he was diagnosed with stage four melanoma and by the summer of 2009 it became evident that treatments were no longer effective. He and Castle, who had remained in touch over the years and lived in neighboring states, developed a plan to coordinate their trips to Oregon that summer, and made a reunion of old running friends a part of the itinerary. “It all happened on relatively short notice,” Castle explained, “but over 50 people were able to come, including the majority of the 1977 cross-country team.”
As they sat around at Bush Park during that beautiful summer day, they joked and laughed about their years together at OCE, and reminisced about the badly run district race in that very park. They shared stories of what had happened since leaving Monmouth, introduced their families, and talked about their professional lives and the lasting value of friendship. The afternoon ebbed, the sun slowly declined in the sky, and all-to-soon it was time to say good-bye. But before parting ways, they gathered for a “team” photo. The photograph reveals once-young athletes who were now men in their mid-fifties, wearing their years with pride. The joy of friendship is evident in their faces.
Goodbyes were difficult, as each in turn talked quietly to Van Jacob. As they separated to return to their disparate professions and widely dispersed homes, the reunion had succeeded in reconnecting long lost friends. “I know it may sound corny to some,” admits Green, “but I believe we have a bond, forged in the fierce battle to be our very best, that will never be broken.”
Scott Van Jacob passed away in South Bend, Indiana on October 10, 2009. He is survived by his wife Elizabeth, two daughters and a step-daughter. His final gift to his former teammates was bringing them
together again and reawakening the bonds
of friendship they had forged long ago.