(This piece is for my book titled Pacesetters: Runners Who Informed Me Best and Inspired Me Most. I am posting an excerpt here each week, this one from February 1994.)
FOUNDING FATHER. News of Bert Nelson’s death took two days to travel the 500 miles up to Oregon from Mountain View, California. It arrived as a two-inch item in the morning newspaper, a small and sad way to hear about the passing of a giant in my life.
Bert cofounded Track & Field News with his brother Cordner shortly after World War II. It was the first of the modern magazines on this sport and still might be the most respected. Both brothers are members of the National Track and Field Hall of Fame.
Bert edited T&FN for nearly 40 years, yielding that post only as his Parkinson’s disease would no longer let him do the job he expected of himself. He died at 72.
I remember him as 42. That was his age the summer I first walked into his office as an awestruck kid spending a summer bumming around the San Francisco-area running circuit.
T&FN had fed my dreams through high school and into college. I was now a pilgrim, going to the source. That was a cramped storefront in Los Altos, but it looked like Mecca to me. Bert Nelson dressed casually and rode an ancient bicycle to work (in an era when executives did neither), but he struck me as regal.
Bert let himself be bothered by a nobody from nowhere. I had no ambitions to make journalism-let alone running journalism-a career.
I just thought it would be neat to spend a summer at Mecca, and kept pestering Bert’s staff until odd jobs opened up for me. One of them was mowing Bert and Jeanette’s yard. I felt honored to do it.
If we’re lucky, we find one person in a lifetime who changes our life’s course. Bert Nelson was that person for me. Seeing the good life he’d made for himself convinced me to bail out of teacher-coach training and take journalism classes.
He plucked me off my first full-time job, with a newspaper, to return to T&FN. He published my first book. Of all the people I’ve met in 30-plus years of writing work, none has left a greater impression than Bert Nelson. When naming role models, I can’t think of a better one than the first one.
Bert could have succeeded in almost any field. He had the smarts and skills for teaching, along with a keen business sense. He could have edited, written for or published much more lucrative journals than T&FN.
But this was his baby, his family, his home. He was content there, and stayed there for almost 50 years.
Bert wasn’t much of a runner. He competed in high school and one year of college, then stopped. But he had the trait that we runners admire most: endurance, which can take many forms besides athletic. His good works endure even now.
UPDATE. The day that news of his death reached Eugene, I wanted to share these thoughts right away with his staff, widow, and daughter. But first I had another column to write, then a journalism class to teach, then a book chapter to polish. This took most of the day.
“With all that work finished.” I wrote in the letter, “it now occurs to me that it’s the best possible tribute to Bert. None of it – not one bit – would have been possible without his early help.
He helped put all of us running journalists where we are now. We feel sadness today. But we also feel enormously proud to be part of his living legacy.”
[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. Latest released was Miles to Go. Other titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]