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Bill Welsh, A True Staten Island Icon

Published by
ArmoryTrack.com   Apr 9th 2014, 5:45pm

Bill Welsh, A True Staten Island Icon

The jokes and the jabs flew at world-record pace. The allegations came from all directions.

Among the best:

Bill Welsh was right there with Moses at the parting of the Red Sea, and actually held a stopwatch checking "splits" in the race ahead of the incoming waters.

Bill Welsh and Pheidippides were training partners.

Bill Welsh was Spiridon Louis's designated rabbit at the Athens Olympic Marathon in 1896.

Bill Welsh pulled Abel Kiviat out of a gym class, to run the Staten Island Championships, then coached him to the 1500-meter world record. 

All, of course, are long stretches of the truth.

Still, there's absolutely no denying that Bill Welsh is one of the sport's most enduring presences and has touched thousands of lives in his years of dedication to track and field and all its branches as athlete, coach, humanitarian and inspiration.

And so, a few hundred of Welsh's best friends and most fervent admirers gathered at the Staaten catering hall on Staten Island Tuesday night - at the event emceed by Jeff Benjamin and Tommy Hart, officially called The Bill Welsh Tribute and Roast - to salute this very special gentleman.

"Mr. Staten Island" - that's Bill Welsh.

First, the basics: Bill Welsh, now 84, has been a runner for seven decades and is still at it, busier thanever before, competing here, there, everywhere.

He ran at St. Francis College, he continued to run after college, has never stopped and has no intention of ever "hanging them up," either.

For many years, he was one of the nation's top road racers, dueling it out with such greats of the 1950s and 60s as Browning Ross, Gordon McKenzie, Horace Ashenfelter, Ted Corbitt, Johnny Kelley, and more. At an array of distances, he was always "right up there."

He was "right up there" for mile after mile after mile of the 1955 Boston Marathon before settling back into 20th at 2:42:06.

He ran six consecutive sub-17 5Ks en route to a 1:41.32 third place in the 1954 Senior National 30K back of Olympians Browning Ross and Gordon Dickson.

He ran his fastest-ever marathon, 2:34:39, in 1962 at Atlantic City, again taking on the best in the game.   But he made just as big a mark as a coach, primarily at Staten Island's New Dorp High School, and in a list of other schools, too.

Remember the high jump winner at the 1976 USA Olympic Trials? That was Bill Welsh pupil Bill Jankunis, clearing 7-5 3/4 to upset Dwight Stones. Remember Staten Island's greatest miler - since the 1910-11-12 heyday of Curtis High grad and Olympic silver medalist Abel Kiviat? That was Bill Welsh pupil Charley Marsala, who still ranks as the Island's only sub-four-minute man.

Remember such Staten Island "phenoms" as Steve Moore, Marty Walsh, Larry Cimato, Bob Corbett, Jack Singler, Jack Fonss and Fabrizio Esposito?  All were Bill Welsh pupils.

One more pupil of "Mr. Welsh" was Bob Andrews, now the assistant principal at Staten Island Technical. Andrews went on to a great career at Penn and at 56 is still a top-rated Masters runner for Shore AC. Oh, and he's also the Dad of Robby Andrews, the two-time NCAA 800 champion for Virginia. If and when Robby goes on to break world records - as many hope - Staten Islanders would surely cheer him as a second-generation one of their own.   

"The best part of all these stories they're telling about you, Mr. Welsh, is that they're true," said Bob Andrews.  He credited "Mr. Welsh" with teaching him - and so many others - to "have the courage to do something very special." And a lot more.

Marty Walsh, who went on to excel for Manhattan College, remembers the day an outstanding New Dorp quartet won the 4x800 relay at the New York Relays on Randall's Island, and then rushed away to win the distance medley in the Englewood Relays in New Jersey.

But a PSAL official heard of it and citing an obscure regulation, demanded his team relinquish its first set of medals.

"Mr. Welsh," predictably, refused - telling the complainer "there is no such rule about running two races the same day in different states"

"There was no way I was going to tell those kids they had to give their medals back."

When Jankunis returned to Staten Island to train for the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Bill Welsh saw him clear 7 feet 10 straight times in a remarkable training session.

When Jankunis asked his still-awestruck coach about refining his technique, his coach could only say "I really don't know; I've never coached a world champion before."  

"Bill Welsh, he's the ultimate teacher," said George Kochman, himself a State Island legend as coach and athlete, and now noted track and field journalist. "If you're smart," you'll listen to what he has to say."  

Staten Island product Ed Gorman now serves as chairman of the USATF Men's Track and Field Committee, holding the reins of one of the most important groups in the sport. For Gorman, it's been a steady rise over the years.

He kidded that the road to the top is sometimes inadvertent: "If you're at a coach's meeting, don't ever leave the room.  When you come back, you'll find out you've been elected to something."

Bill Welsh was often a leader among his fellow coaches. One more Welsh achievement: making the Staten Island Championships the only true NYC borough title meet, as the only one of the five giving public and parochial school teams the chance to have it out, same day, same venue.

Fast forward now. Bill Welsh continues fighting a rare form of leukemia.

"Three years ago, they told my grandpa he had three months left," said grandson Brian Fox. "Obviously, they were all wrong. And that's what's making tonight even better."

These days, the slowing-but-forever-smiling Bill Welsh competes in every possible event he can find. Year-round.

Last May, he entered 10 events in the USATF-NJ Masters Championships and won seven of them in his 80-84 age division, prompting a joshing friend to say "that shows there actually were guys in those other three events."

A film crew was busy through all this and in the works now - hopefully coming to the screen soon - is their finished product  titled "Ten Gold Medals." 

As noted witer Marc Bloom, himself with strong Staten Island ties, put it, "Bill Welsh runs two races every weekend and one track meet a month. He comes in last in every event he enters – but he doesn’t care. Running, for Bill, has a higher purpose."

"All these years, Bill Welsh has been my inspiration," Bill Indek, former Staten Islander nowretired as Glen Ridge, N.J. High School coach, tells you. "I first met Bill in 1961, when I was 14 years old and he was the coach at St. Augie's (Augustinian Academy)."

Indek's first reaction: "Who is this guy?" He soon learned and has been a Bill Welsh fan ever since.

"Bill Welsh became my role model then, and he still is.

"I'm 67 now, and he's still my inspiration."

Many of the Roast-Tribute attendees will gather again Saturday morning for The Bill Welsh 5K Run, a 9 a.m. start at Clove Lakes Park, where the good times will continue to roll.

Photo: BWelshruns.com

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