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WNY Running Hall of Fame induction introductions

Three people were formally inducted into the Western New York Running Hall of Fame on Friday night in the annual ceremony in Buffalo. Matt Hellerer, Edna Hyer and the late Jesse Kregal were selected. Here are the introductions for them in the ceremony:

Matt Hellerer

We don’t put every track coach from St. Joe’s in the Hall of Fame, although board member Mike Curry – St. Joe’s Class of ’69 – is working on that detail. In this case, we salute one of the fastest runners in Western New York history.

This inductee showed up at high school football practice, saw the quarterback get pounded, and decided there must be a better way to earn a varsity letter. That led him to the crew team. On icy spring days, the Marauders would go for a collective run when they couldn’t get in the water. Our first honoree kept right up with the cross-country runners on the team, who urged him to give track a try. He did well, and decided to stay with it.

He was All-Catholic in the fall in cross-country, and that earned him a ticket to run in college. He showed up at one of the finest academic institutions in the country – at least that’s what my diploma from Syracuse says – and ran as a freshman. But a coaching change prompted him to leave that part of Central New York. He ended up at Cornell, and became friends with Pete Pfitzinger, one of the top long-distance runners in the country during the 1980s. Pfitzinger won the U.S. Olympic Marathon trials here in 1984.

But before that race, our inductee learned a few lessons about running. He ran a 1983 marathon in 2 hours, 18 minutes and 11 seconds. That’s not the fastest marathon ever run by a Western New Yorker, but it’s good enough to put him on the podium. He was the first American across the finish line in a Tokyo marathon in 1984, and took part in the U.S. Marathon trials that same year.

From there, he returned home and was one of the area’s top runners. He landed a teaching job at St. Joe’s when a woman took a leave of absence to have a baby, and never returned. Apparently the school felt it wouldn’t lose another teacher down the road if it hired our honoree.  Eventually, the job of track coach opened up at St. Joe’s, and he followed in the footsteps of Hall of Famers Bob Ivory and Mike Diggins. He’s still at it, and he also coaches the cross country team these days, which has won four straight league championships.

It seems that he’ll be adding to his resume in the years to come. But in the meantime, he deserves to be placed in such fast company. Welcome to the Hall of Fame, Matt Hellerer.

Edna Hyer

Our second inductee knows she’s never been one of the fastest runners in the area, and that made her wonder if she deserved to be here tonight. Other runners have more accomplishments, she argued. Well, in the words of Vice President Joe Biden – folks, that’s a bunch of malarkey.

About 40 years ago, though, no one would have believed that she would be honored in this way. She saw how high school running was closed to women in the 1970s, and she didn’t think that was fair to her daughter. So she took up the fight, and found herself running as a show of support and as a way to keep a few pounds off. It turned out that she liked it.

She started to take part in races around the area, creating opportunities for women to participate in the process. It wasn’t that long ago when it was thought women were too fragile to run long distances, but women like our honored guest helped change minds. She took that effort to the next level when she was involved in the creation of USA Track and Field. She became the USATF’s women’s long distance chairperson for five years, and got to hang out with Mrs. Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis. Now that’s fast company. This author even wrote a column for years called “From the Back of the Pack.”

But while administrative work was nice, and important, the racing always came first. She read about how 1,000 races was a good goal for any runner, so she eventually reached that number – times two. She has averaged about 60 races a year lately despite some physical problems. She was saluted by Runner’s World as one of its top Masters Long Distance Runners of the Year.  She won a national championship in her age-group two years ago in the 10-kilometer run.

But our honoree has done a lot more than just run. She’s inspired many, many others – men and women – to put on their sneakers and take to the roads. A total of 281 people shared her story this week on Facebook, which is my PR for a running column. Here are a few comments posted this past week: “Proud to say I'm one of Edna's biggest fans. She has given me so much encouragement at races!” “I so remember Edna at running races. What a wonderful lady and happy to see she is being honored.” “Edna, I love seeing you at my races. You're awesome!!!!!”

It’s not a question of whether she deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. It’s a question of what took us so long to induct her. Those questions are over. Thank you for your many contributions, Edna Hyer.

Jesse Kregal

These speeches do not come with musical accompaniment, but some would be our appropriate for the final inductee of the evening. A nice, loud song would be good, something that could be literally felt by listeners and noisy enough to be heard in the heavens. That’s because this honoree served as the Principal Timpanist for the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra for more than 30 years. If you don’t know what a timpani is, or aren’t sure how to spell it, well, join the club. But this musical instrument is also called the kettledrum, and that puts matters into perspective a bit better. He performed in more than 30 countries over the years.

But this is the Running Hall of Fame and not the Music Hall of Fame, and his accomplishments are numerous in this area too. It only took him a year to form the Buffalo Philharmonic Athletic Club after his arrival in this area in 1970.

That talent for organizing came in handy when he decided to start a marathon. It was something of a wacky idea at the time when you think about it. A race that crossed an international boundary, going from Buffalo to Niagara Falls, Canada? Who would want to do that? As it turned out, many people thought it wasn’t so wacky. The Skylon International Marathon began on October 26, 1974, and attracted about 400 runners. In two years, the field had grown to 3,000. At the time, it was the second-largest marathon in the country – trailing only Boston. The course was used for the Olympic marathon trials in 1980 and 1984, a high point in Buffalo’s running history. The idea lives on today with the annual fall marathon that still follows that route, more or less.

He also worked to promote education among runners. In 1978, he set up a conference to promote the sport and the City of Buffalo. Among the guests were Sir Roger Bannister and Dr. George Sheehan.  If you needed a place to run or at least walk, he formed the Scajaquada Pathway Committee in 1982. That 2.5-mile route connected Delaware Park and the Riverwalk. It was named in his honor in 2007.

Recognition for his good work has come from a variety of sources. But the act of putting one foot in front of the other was never far from his mind. He ran more than 60 marathons, including numerous Boston Marathons, during his career. His personal best was under three hours.

That’s a symphony of accomplishments in a lifetime. So we pound the drums to salute this new member of the Hall of Fame, Jesse Kregal.

-- Budd Bailey

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