Chuck Bowles Is Willamette Track and Field
Retired coach's passion for teaching helped form the foundation for the Bearcat's running programs.
It's a Friday afternoon in March, and Chuck Bowles is prowling the infield at Chuck Bowles Track during the Chuck Bowles Spring Break Classic, watching every move of every Willamette University track athlete, just like he did for 25 years as the Bearcats' track coach.
"He's a constant reminder to our coaching staff, a reminder of why we're doing this," said Matt McGuirk, the third head coach since Bowles retired at age 67 in 1990. "I'm looking out over the track that's named for him, and I can't think of anything more appropriate. Chuck Bowles IS Willamette track and field."
Bowles, white-haired and 82, still would be on that track every day, monitoring progress and giving advice when asked, were it not for the deteriorating health of his wife of nearly 62 years, Barbara.
"Willamette is such a great place for young people, and the Willamette experience has been great for me and my family," Bowles said. "I'm so proud of the development of our track program.
"He shows up at least twice a week in McGuirk's office - on Tuesdays after he has delivered Meals on Wheels and on Thursdays during Barbara's weekly hair appointment. He is busy other days volunteering at an outreach shelter and delivering food to several agencies.
Bowles is careful never to tread over the line, never telling McGuirk how to coach, but he asks pointed questions.
"That's the thing I love most about Coach Bowles: he just tells it like it is," McGuirk said. "There's no dancing around an issue. He just says what's up with this person, what's wrong here, why doesn't this person run faster? He's to the point."
Chuck and Barbara have sacrificed in ways that never will be quantified to make track at Willamette University a success.
"When I came back to Willamette, our track needed to be resurfaced and it was going to cost a lot of money," said Kelly Sullivan, one of Bowles' prize steeplechasers, when Sullivan became Willamette's head coach in 1997. "People said I should get ahold of Coach Bowles, and I said, 'He's the last person on earth I want to donate another penny.' I never had any facts, but I know there were a number of times that the school didn't have funding for us to go to national meets and Coach paid for it out of his own pocket. When we built a new hammer throw facility, he sort of went behind my back and donated money. And if we had a fund-raising project and we raised maybe 30 percent, he and Barbara would cover the 70 percent. He'll probably deny he ever did it."
Sullivan now is the head coach of the women's track and cross-country teams at Oregon State University.
Bowles coached at Willamette from 1966 through 1990 and won 11 Northwest Conference championships in men's track, nine of them in 10 years from 1978 through 1987. He won seven straight conference cross country championships and won nine District 2 championships in 11 years, from 1976 through 1986. In 1979, he also became coach of the women's team.
He coached the women 11 years, and 12 of the 25 school records still on the books were set by Bowles' athletes; 14 of 24 men's school records are from the Bowles era.
"Every day he walks in here you remember how hard he must have worked to do all the things he did when he had this program at the top," McGuirk said. "He did everything from being athletic director to making lunches for all the kids."
Indeed Bowles, in his initial years at Willamette, was head coach of track and cross country, athletic director, chairman of the department of physical education and was teaching a full course load.
"From the start I knew this was a great place, and as my passion grew, there wasn't anything else I wanted to do," Bowles remembers. "I was going to be here until they kicked me out."
He won the conference championship in his first season, then only once more in the next 11 years.
"My major problem when I first got going was being department head, teaching, athletic director and coach," he said. "I had trouble recruiting because there wasn't any time left in the day. Once I got rid of some of that extra stuff, then we just soared."
McGuirk was amazed when he joined Sullivan's coaching staff and met Bowles.
"I don't know the Spec Keene story, the story of all the other legendary Willamette people, but when a guy is running the athletic department and physical education department and doing all that he did, he is laying the foundation for us and for what really is a pretty easy job compared to what he had to go through," McGuirk said. "I'm not saying it's an easy job, but I can't imagine what he had to do in his day."
Whatever Bowles did, he wasn't alone.
He had climbed Mount Hood as a student at the University of Portland and met Barbara, a student at Willamette, on the summit. They married in 1943 and she became a partner in all he accomplished.
He founded the Zena Road Run, sponsored summer all-comer track meets and fall all-comer cross country meets for kids, directed the Governor's Trophy Run in its early days, always with Barbara dispersing snacks, collecting fees or handing out the ribbons that she also had made.
Asked what he sacrificed most during all those years, Bowles said: "Probably time with my wife. But she adjusted."
The team became an extended family to Chuck, Barbara and their two children, who still live in Salem and call every day to check on them.
"Barbara would bake hundreds of cookies and take them to our track meets, and once there was a picture of the team in the Statesman with all these cookies on a steeplechase barrier after a meet," Bowles said. "Then they'd all come out to the house and Barbara would cook. We had a big shot putter from Neahkahnie who'd say, 'Boy, I love those team dinners.'
"Some of Sullivan's fondest memories of running for Sullivan were the Sunday morning runs to the Bowles home in the hills west of the community of Lincoln.
"They lived way out Zena Road, and we'd meet at 7 a.m. at the Sparks Center for an eight-mile, 10-mile or 13-mile run, depending on the route we took," Sullivan said. "We'd run in and take off our wet T-shirts and put them in the dryer, and Coach Bowles had old shirts from road races for us to put on. Barbara would cook eggs and meat and biscuits served with apple juice and orange juice, then we'd all lay on the floor until our stuff was dry."
Eventually, Bowles would load the runners in a van and drive them back to campus.
"We were thinking about our sacrifice getting up at 6:55 a.m. to go for a run, but Barbara had been up cooking all morning, giving up what was supposedly their one day off from us."
So it was alarming to Sullivan when he returned to Willamette to coach and found Bowles available to help, but virtually on the discard heap.
"I asked some of the kids about him and they said, 'Oh, that kind-of-ornery old guy?' And it ticked me off," said Sullivan. "Look at the school records, the top-10 lists, the conference titles. It all came from him."
Sullivan immediately took advantage, asking Bowles to share his vast experience by being a volunteer coach.
"It was instant, the first time the kids really met him, that they could sense his sincerity and his passion," Sullivan said.
"They realized how much he cared. Then the second year he took a bunch of vagabonds, a mismatch of guys who couldn't make the conference finals as individuals, and under Coach Bowles they won the conference 4 x 400 relay. The guys who were involved in that think Coach Bowles hung the moon. That was pretty cool."
It was the last season Bowles could help coach, but as often as he could take time away from caring for Barbara, he would be at the track and in the track office.
"He'd be at every practice if he could. He still gets to every meet," Sullivan said.
Meals on Wheels, daily walks and careful attention to his diet keeps Bowles healthy and productive.
"I need to do something that helps the community," he said, in reference to his volunteer tasks. "It's fun, and you need to be helping other people."
And so, on a Friday morning during track season, he's taking care of his responsibilities at home so he can get to Chuck Bowles Track to watch his beloved Bearcats.
"They keep naming these events after me - the Chuck Bowles Spring Break Classic, the Chuck Bowles Cross Country Invitational," he said. "It gets kind of embarrassing."
Sidebar - The Veteran
WHO: Chuck Bowles, 82, retired in 1990 after 25 years as track and cross-country coach at Willamette University
ON THE RUN: Delivers Meals on Wheels, volunteers at an outreach shelter, delivers food to several agencies and takes an hour walk each day with his giant yellow lab, Andy. Bowles says the walks are not too strenuous "because Andy makes too many pee stops."
HIS PASSION: A close second after Barbara, his wife of nearly 62 years, is the Willamette track program, for which he laid the foundation.
HIS STRENGTH: "I've been a good teacher. Like Coach K at Duke, who says he's a teacher who just happens to coach basketball, I was a teacher who just happened to coach track."
ON THE RECORD: Bowles' teams won11 Northwest Conference men's track championships, including nine in10 years. More than half of Willamette's school records still are held by athletes Bowles coached.
OF NOTE: Bowles still rides the team bus to meets around Oregon, in part, he said, "because it makes my wife happy. She's afraid I'm going to fall asleep and drive off the road."
This story was written by Roy Gault for the Statesman Journal and appeared on March 25, 2005.
© 2005, The Statesman Journal. Reprinted with permission.
Editor's Note: Chuck Bowles died on December 30, 2005 at age 83. On March 5, 2006, many friends and family joined the Willamette community to remember Chuck Bowles, some driving many hours to be at the Memorial. The Charles Bowles Memorial Fund has been created for those wishing to contribute in his hame. Contact the Office of Annual Giving at (503) 370-6805 or (866) 444-2239, or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.