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Ivory was a legend in local running community

Bob Ivory liked to tell the story about when representatives of St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute came to him in 1979 and said they wanted to stage a road race in his honor.

Ivory would say how school officials said, “ ‘Why don’t we have a run and call it the Bob Ivory Memorial?’ They were always saying, ‘When’s it going to be?’ ”

Now we know.

Ivory, one of the top high school coaches in Western New York history in cross country along with track and field, died on Christmas Eve. He was 86.

Talk to anyone who knew him, as a coach and/or as a friend, and they are quick to praise one of the most beloved figures in local running history. Ivory ran cross country at Canisius College, and was part of an undefeated team there in 1950. He later was a teacher in North Tonawanda who drove to St. Joe’s after school each day to coach his teams from 1965 to 1975.

“He was way ahead of his time,” said Matt Hellerer, now a coach of St. Joe’s and one of Ivory’s runners back in the 1970s. “He had us run 50, 60, 70 miles a week. He used to call it LSD − long, slow distance. We didn’t know anything about it. He was our source of information. He told us what to do, and it worked.”

“He was a great judge of talent,” Don McMahon said with a laugh. “As a freshman and sophomore, I ran the quarter-mile. He used to have everyone run the quarter-mile so he could see what they’d do and then move them up and down in distance. I was overweight and didn’t meet his quarter-mile standards. After football practice one day, he came up to me and made me a shot-putter.”

Ivory had quite a decade at St. Joe’s. His teams won 56 straight meets, eight league titles and nine straight all-Catholic championships in track. In cross country, the Marauders won six regular-season titles and seven All-Catholic crowns. The 1971 team is considered one of the greatest squads in Western New York history.

His coaching techniques weren’t exactly old school. In September, he’d have groups of runners work out together by sticking to the pace of the slowest runner. That built good feelings among the team, and gave the slow runners a little incentive to go faster. Hellerer remembers Ivory having speed workouts to go with longer runs and rest days − an unusual approach then.

“He wasn’t down your throat,” said Mike Curry, another of Ivory’s runners. “There was no yelling, except when it came to yelling out times. He was a runner. When we went off to do field events, we were on our own.”

Ivory’s relaxed approach doesn’t mean he wasn’t paying attention. Ivory used to follow his runners by car when they went out on long runs for workouts. Occasionally, the team seemed to disappear from view.

“The guys took to running to my house,” said Beth McMahon, a longtime track official. “Bob could not find them. Years later, I told him where all the guys were. Bob said, ‘Dammit, I knew they ran somewhere, but I couldn’t find out where.’

“I lived about three miles from the school, so Bob said that at least they were running six miles on those days.”

Ivory stepped away from formal coaching after the successful decade, but he couldn’t leave the sport of running. Ivory trained Dick Buerkle, who broke the world record in the indoor mile with a time of 3 minutes, 54.9 seconds in 1978. Ivory worked for more than 30 years as a local track official.

Beth McMahon once heard a story from another of Ivory’s runners, John O’Donnell. He started talking to a stranger over breakfast at a restaurant one morning at Denny’s. O’Donnell was told that the Sacred Heart high school track team recently had some problems, and Ivory quickly volunteered when asked to work with the team.

“John said to me, ‘When I finished breakfast, I wondered if I talked to a stranger a day, how many people would have a story about my old coach? It was a life admirably lived,’ ” McMahon said.

Ivory was one of the founders of the Blue Mountain Cross Country Camp in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. Hellerer still remembers Ivory’s talks with the campers.

“Every year he’d get up in front of 300 kids and tell stories,” Hellerer said. “They’d be magnetized. He did it until about five years ago. He was very clear cut − he’d say, you tell me what your goals are, and here’s what you have to do to reach those goals. Then come to practice tomorrow. It worked.”

Ivory had his quirks. Sometimes he’d watch the Checkers Athletic Club work out in Crosby Field in Kenmore, which was within walking distance of Don and Beth McMahon’s house. Conveniently, practice would end around the dinner hour.

“He’d stop at our house and say, ‘What are you cooking for dinner?’ Beth remembered. “If it was something he liked, he’d say, ‘OK, I’ll have one.’ He had no qualms about inviting himself.”

Eventually, the top honors in his profession came Ivory’s way. He was part of the first class of inductees for the Western New York Running Hall of Fame. Before that, he went into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. The induction ceremony came with a catch − Ivory would have to dress formally for the occasion. It would be quite a change for someone usually seen in a wrinkled sweatsuit.

Beth McMahon convinced Ivory to go get a tuxedo at a store, and − after complaining that he could have gotten something cheaper at a funeral home − it took him a while to figure out what went where.

“Then I said to him, ‘You do have black socks, right?” McMahon said. “He said ‘No,’ and I said, ‘You can’t wear white socks.’ He said, ‘Why not? What difference does it make?’ I got a pair of Don’s socks and gave it to him.”

Ivory’s health declined in the past few years, and he needed more and more care as time went on. Hellerer made sure that Ivory had company on a regular basis, setting up an email chain to create a schedule. It wasn’t easy, but Hellerer did it. As Don McMahon said, “Matt has more patience than anyone I know.”

A couple of weeks ago, Ivory started to fail. He had trouble speaking, and wasn’t eating well. Ivory was moved to a skilled nursing facility, and he couldn’t walk or sleep. On Christmas Eve Ivory ate a good meal and was put to bed. A nurse checked in 10 minutes later, and he was gone.

Ivory never married, and his only living relative was a brother in Chicago. But he leaves behind many athletes whose lives he touched. Ivory’s many friends all agreed that those runners were surrogate children to him.

“Outside of my immediate family, that was the most important relationship in my life,” Hellerer said. “He felt like a friend when he was a coach. He would do anything for us.

“He continues to impact the young kids that I coach. It’s great. It really is a family.”


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