Howard Schmertz: A tribute, by Elliott Denman

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Mark Wetmore, Steve Hooker, Howard Schmertz, 2009 Millrose, 
photo by PhotoRun.net
HOWARD SCHMERTZ TRIBUTE
 
  By ELLIOTT DENMAN

   The year was 1951, and John Wanamaker Co. president John E. Raasch couldn't help but gushing in the article he penned for the program of the 44th Annual Games of the Millrose Athletic Association.

  "These young men still place their faith in individual performance," he wrote. "They have put in long hours of diligent effort training to develop their ability to excel as individuals.   No fear of the future hampers their determination to succeed.  There is no lack of courage to risk failure - only the flaming urge to excel; the glory of winning a fair struggle through reliance on their own talents and abilities.

  "Underlying all the intense personal rivalry and stirring competition are the sublimest of all democratic qualities - the spirit of good sportsmanship, fair play and personal tolerance manifested by the competitors toward each other.

  "Race, creed, color, birth, social standing, wealth and other petty distinctions matter not at all.  Each competitor  stands by what he is tonight.
 
  "We welcome you as competitors of the Millrose Games and we salute you.   May your faith in your own abilities and capacities increase as the days go by. May you be privileged to live your lives as free individuals."

    Noble words, yes. Gushy words, true.

    But the truth, the whole truth, too.

   And that's what the Millrose Games have stood for, since their very beginning in 1908, as the track and field extravaganza put together by the very good people of the John Wanamaker Co.

    Just as John Wanamaker Co. stood for excellence in retailing, the Millrose Games stood for excellence in the flagship sport of the Olympic Games.

    The young Fred Schmertz would join force with such similarly-intentioned gentlemen as John R. Wanamaker, Fred W. Wilkens, David McMullin, Richard C. Bond, Frank Kellogg and John E. Raasch to guide the Millrose Games on the path to glory, in an era - before the NBA, before the NHL took hold - when indoor track and field was the single biggest drawing card of each winter's sporting schedule.

   And so the Millrose Games, first staged in New York armories, then moved to Madison Square Garden #2, # 3 and #4, gathering steam at each locale.

  For 41 years, Fred Schmertz - backed by his supportive Board of Governors - ran this Millrose Games show.

   The greats and the would-be greats ran there every winter, delivering a rousing show, dramatic races and barrier-breaking field event performances that were sure to sell out the Garden to its 18,000-plus capacity.  Not only that, but Millrose, as the leadoff event in the five-consecutive-weekend card of big-time meets at the Garden, kept the sport of track and field the talk of the town.

   Batting leadoff on each winter's Garden schedule, the Millrose Games - with tickets always in hot demand - were followed by the NYAC Games, National AAU Championships, IC4A Championships and the New York Knights of Columbus Games, and what a delight it was to be a track fan coming of age in that golden era of the sport.

   Just look at the list of Millrose whiz-bang winners those Fred Schmertz years.

   Among them:

   The great Wanamaker Mile champions - from Joe Ray to Paavo Nurmi  to Glenn Cunningham to Leslie MacMitchell to Don Gehrmann to Ron Delany to Marty Liquori.

   The great Millrose sprint kings: Loren Murchison to Emmett Toppino to Herb Thompson to Barney Ewell to Eddie Conwell to Andy Stanfield to Lindy Remigino to Frank Budd to Bob Hayes to Lennox Miller.

   The stalwart Millrose high hurdlers: Earl Thomson to Percy Beard to Fred Wolcott to Ed Dugger to Harrison Dillard to Hayes Jones to Willie Davenport to Rod Milburn.

  The forever sky-scraping, crowd-pleasing Millrose pole vaulters: Charley Hoff to Keith Brown to Earle Meadows to Dick Ganslen to Cornelius Warmerdam to Rev. Bob Richards to John Uelses to Bob Seagren to Steve Smith.

  The famed Millrose Games high jump kings: Harold Osborn to George Spitz to Cornelius Johnson to Bill Vessie to John Vislocky to Moon Mondschein to J. Lewis Hall to Phil Reavis to John Thomas to Frank Costello to Reynaldo Brown.

    Having seen it all, Fred Schmertz passed the reins of Millrose Games director to son Howard Schmertz in 1975.  He would pass away just one Millrose Games later - on March 5, 1976.

   But the Millrose Games did not miss a beat under Howard Schmertz's direction and even gathered steam, with the exploits of  milers Eamonn Coghlan, Marcus O'Sullivan and Bernard  Lagat; sprinters Houston McTear, Andre Cason and Maurice Greene; high jumpers Dwight Stones, Franklin Jacobs, Jimmy Howard,  Hollis Conway and Charles Austin, and pole vaulters Earl Bell, Billy Olson, Sergey Bubka, Jeff Hartwig and Steve Hooker.

  The men's long jump - not usually a Millrose event - made a rare appearance on the Millrose card and Carl Lewis came to the Garden in 1984 to pop a 28-10 1/4 leap, still the world indoor record.

    Women's events - rarely seen in the Fred Schmertz area - came of age under Howard Schmertz's direction and would feature such notables as Jan Merrill, Francie Larrieu, Mary Decker, Dointe Melinte and Carmen Douma-Hussar, in the mile; and Madeline Manning, Cheryl Toussaint,  Joetta Clark, Maria Mutola and Hazel Clark, in the "halves," either 880 yards or 800 meters.

  By the turn of the new century, however, tastes were changing and indoor track no longer had such sure-shot seat-sellers as Eamonn Coghlan, Carl Lewis and Mary Decker.

  As the pro sports kept stretching their seasons and churning out their news developments year round, however, it was inevitable that something would have to give, and what gave - primarily on the sports pages and this new phenomenon of sportstalk radio - was indoor track.

  When just 9,611 fans - about half the building's capacity - paid their way into the Garden for the 2011 Millrose Games, staged on the once-standard but now obsolete and slower 11-laps-to-the-mile oval, it seemed obvious that something drastic had to be done.  And that became the often-discussed but finally-done move to the state-of-the-art New Balance Armory Track and Field Center on 168th Street in Washington Heights in 2012.

   Departure from the Garden surely broke a little bit of Howard Schmertz's heart but he soldiered on in typical style, wife Judy as ever at his side, as the Millrose Games moved 137 Manhattan blocks north.

   Three Millrose Games have now been held at the Armory and they've lived up to all the expectations with sensational performances, on the 200-meter banked track that enabled the world's fastest to maintain pace with contemporaries anywhere else on earth, and field events facilities that rank with the very best.
 
   They've drawn capacity crowds, too - but capacity at the Armory is just under 5,000 while it was 18,000-plus at the Garden.

   Howard Schmertz attended the 107th Millrose Games - in his capacity as meet director emeritus.

   Bernard Lagat, Mary Cain, Ajee' Wilson, Will Leer, Lalonde Gordon & Co. delivered an array of footracing highlights.

   Howard Schmertz, of course,  was there - at a special reception Friday night before the meet at the New York Athletic Club, and at the meet the following afternoon, to revel in the company of old track and field buddies, and embrace such past Millrose celebrities as Eamonn Coghlan and Marcus O'Sullivan.

  Few would have suspected it at the time - but the occasion would prove to be Howard Schmertz's Millrose farewell.

  He was a World War II Army veteran and New York lawyer; loving husband, father of two and grandfather of four. But more than anything, Howard Schmertz - like his father - was always best known as "Mr. Millrose."

    The "new" Millrose Games at the Armory - now the New York Road Runners Millrose Games - will carry right on with an enlightened management team led by Ray Flynn, the Armory's Dr. Norbert Sander, and NYRR CEO Mary Wittenberg.

  Still, the 108th Millrose meet in February 2015 will not be the same.

  Howard Schmertz passed away of congestive heart failure at age 88 last Friday at his Port Washington, N.Y. home, Judy Schmertz ever at his side.

   When the father-and-son team of Fred and Howard Schmertz was elected to the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, located at the Armory, , in December 2012, it guaranteed their joint presence at the historic  building forever and ever.

   Friends, family, Millrose colleagues and devotees turned out to say their goodbyes at the funeral ceremony held Sunday.  He's gone now, the finish line reached, but destined to be remembered in eternity, surely by the many-many who sat enthralled as Millrose Games past and present delivered track fans' delight after delight, moments of excellence that never seemed to cease.

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Howard Schmertz, courtesy of the Armory.com

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