By Marvin Goodwin
The Oakland Press
This Saturday at Kensington Metropark, Kermit Ambrose will find his usual position at the 39th annual, Oakland County Cross Country meet.
But unlike past years, it will be the first time Ambrose hadn't had a major role in putting the meet together.
He did set up the finishing chute and rope the areas dividing spectators and runners. But that's minuscule compared to his tasks in previous years, which included sending invitations, obtaining awards, starting the meet, marking the course and officiating.
To be sure, Ambrose has done it all when it comes to track and cross country. Not for years, but for decades. For a man who's nearing his 88th birthday, his energy level is phenomenal. But even Ambrose has to slow down.
"He's forgotten more than most all of us have known," said West Bloomfield cross country coach Lee Averill, who also helped mark the Kensington course. "I'm always amazed at how he keeps going. As far back as I can remember, he's done it all as far as cross country and track. As far as running off meets, they don't come any better than him."
"He is Oakland County track and cross country," Brother Rice coach Bob Stark said. "He's the one who really built cross country and track in this area. The man is unbelievable."
Indeed, in his 25 year coaching career at Birmingham Seaholm High School, from 1952-77, Ambrose's cross country teams won 95 of 112 and two state titles, placed second at state twice and never finished lower than seventh. In track, his teams won 94 of 100 dual meets, including 76 straight league duels and a combined 55 championships in both sports. Since his retirement in 1977, he's officiated at track and cross country meets for 31 years.
It all began on Jan. 6, 1911, when Ambrose was born in a small community about five miles north of Hoskin's, Neb. in the eastern part of the state. William Howard Taft was president, trains were the prevalent mode of transportation, there was no radio, Arizona and New Mexico were still territories and the Titanic was more than a year away from its maiden voyage.
"We were poor," Ambrose recalls, "just renters. We never owned anything. I was a little farm boy from Nebraska who wasn't supposed to go to high school."
But he did. He recalls one of his best friends names Paul whose parents moved from Sioux City, Iowa, close to the Ambrose spread to escape the trouble of the big city.
"His parents bought this farm out there and it was the worst thing they could've done," Ambrose said. That's because the Great Depression was right around the corner. "I went to a one room schoolhouse with one teacher. This was back in the 1920's."
Ambrose attended Pierce High School in Pierce County, Neb. There were no buses then, so Ambrose, buddy Paul, and others would live in the boardinghouse during the week "with Mr. and Mrs. Bill Prahl. They were nice people. W all paid $4 a week for room and board."
Ambrose who graduated from high school in 1929, wound up as senior class president and played football and basketball. He had a unique start for college, courtesy of his pals.
"They came by with a Ford Roadster with a rumble seat and said, 'Hey Kermit, throw some clothes in a suitcase and let's go to college,'. So I did."
At Wayne State College in Wayne County, Neb. "You paid $5 matriculation fee, $5 to rent books, and activity ticket was $5. I thin you had to pay $23 to register and we lived at at private home for a buck and a half a week" said Ambrose, who lettered four years in football and was captain of the team his senior year and was on the reserve basketball team.
Ambrose's first job as a teacher at a small country school during the Depression paid him only $2.50 per day. But his pay eventually increased as he made teaching stops in Illinois and Wisconsin, earning as much as $2,000 a year in the early 1940's. He coached football, basketball and track while teaching, but it all came to a standstill when he was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II.
There he served more than three years in the service, hitting such destinations as southern Italy, Scotland, England, North Africa and the Mediterranean while assigned to weather observation school. After being discharged, "I decided to go the Detroit and do real estate," he said. "I settled in Royal Oak and got my real estate license. As a salesman, I was the pits. I probably would've starved to death."
Ambrose started substitute teaching in the Royal Oak, Ferndale, and Birmingham school districts an ended up at Birmingham High School, where he took on the tack and cross country programs and guided them to success.
He has coached a number of standout athletes, including Jack Bacheler, a Seaholm grad who was one of the nation's top distance runners in the early '70's and Jack Harvey, a champion shot putter an current head track coach at the University of Michigan.
Bacheler was a 6 - foot - 6 forward on the Birmingham basketball team. "I met him in the hall, " Ambrose recalled, "and he said, 'Can I have a cross country application?' I said, 'You've got to be kidding. I know you want to get in shape for basketball.' He said, 'No coach, I want to run.' I said to myself O.K. buddy, learn the hard way. By the second meet of the year, he's my No. 1 man. Now he's an entomologist at the University of Florida."
Ambrose has officiated at most of the NCAA indoor track and field meets and Joe Louis Arena, Cobo Arena and the year it was held at the Pontiac Silverdome. He's attended every U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials since 1960 except for the '72 meet in Eugene, Ore.
To be sure, he's witnessed some of the great performers of track and field, covering more than a half-centruy of scintillating efforts. The old film clips always show Olympian Jesse Owens hitting the tape first. But Ambrose has a unique perspective.
"I saw Jesse Owens get beat in Milwaukee at the Central Collegiates," Ambrose said. "He didn't come in second, he came in third. (Marquette's) Ralph Metcalf and Eulace Peacock (Michigan) beat him."
But Ambrose's entire life has been dedicated to helping kids improve themselves, and the Oakland County meet has been but one venue in which he's helped youngsters have an area to compete. Ambrose, as a coach, remembers the early years of the meet.
"There was Don Smith, the athletic director at Walled Lake High School," Ambrose said. "He was also the cross country and track coach and he was the one who started it. They had one race, they it at one of these shooting galleries, somewhere east of the present Walled Lake Central High School. The runner took off and somebody screwed up. At the finish., the stopwatch as only about seven minutes. They hadn't measured it correctly."
Ambrose has always been a force behind the meet, which has been held at Oakland Community College, Marshbank, an other sites. But as he and Averill, who has coached for more than 30 years, begin to relinquish their duties, few others have stepped up to take on the tasks, according to Averill.
"It's about time somebody else took the ball," Averill said. "Kermit has done more than his share."
Indeed, Ambrose always tries to give kids and coaches helpful hint in life as well as running. Sometimes they listen. Sometimes they don't. "I'm kind of grumpy once in a while but I can't get upset over it," he said. "If you can't help out somebody, then what the use of being around?"
"A lot of people don't understand he's really for the kids," veteran coach Randy Wilkins said. "He still tries tot each kids the right way. I think he really believes in doing things correct and right. I've known Kermit for 25 years and he means the world to me. He's just a great man."
Ambrose doesn't get around as well as he used to. But he'll still show up at the cross country and track meets when he's able.
"Next summer I'll have my 70th high school reunion. I don't know if there's anyone left besides me."
If there is, it's a bet few could match the impact Kermit
Ambrose has shad on so many other people.
"It's been one fantastic life. I've enjoyed every minute of it."
The Maples in the 1997 Ambrose Relays