For decades, one of the greatest high school rivalries in Arkansas was the Springdale Bulldogs vs. the Fayetteville Bulldogs. But my favorite memory from any of those games had nothing to do with football or basketball.
The stadium in Springdale was packed for the annual match-up. Sitting beside me was a white-haired man in his 70’s. We began chatting and I soon discovered that he didn’t know anything about either team. He was just there to watch his grandson in the Springdale Marching Band. I also discovered that he, like me, was from Kansas. And somewhere in the conversation, I discovered that I was sitting next to Wes Santee.
Of the few thousand at this football game, I was probably one of the few (and maybe the only one) who would have recognized that name. But I was from Kansas. And I was a University of Kansas Jayhawk fan. And I was a track and field fan. And Wes Santee was a track and field legend in Kansas and, at one time, around the world. I don’t remember who actually won the football game that night, because Mr. Santee and I talked track until a storm caused the game to be suspended and we went our separate ways. But a few days later, I received an autographed copy of The Perfect Mile from him. If you enjoy track and field, you will love the book.
I will let this article from the New York Times give you the details of his career. But in 1953 and 1954, the world watched as Santee, John Landy of Australia, and Roger Bannister of Great Britain raced to become the first person to break the four-minute barrier in the mile. On May 6, 1954, Bannister ran a 3:59.4. On June 21, 1954, Landy ran a 3:58. Though Santee was the American record holder in the mile and world record holder in the 1,500 meters indoors and outdoors and in the mile indoors, he was never able to run faster than 4:00.5.
Wes Santee passed away on Sunday in Eureka, KS at the age of 78. I fondly remember my evening with him and his graciousness to me.