BY JACK HEATH
Jack Pyrah never wanted the conversation to end. When Jack left us on July19 at the age of 88, no one wanted the conversations about Jack Pyrah to end. Sometimes it takes a man's passing to put all the pieces together to see the whole picture of the man. To see just how much he impacted everyone's life. When you lose a good, kind person like Jack Pyrah the world seems a little darker. Talking about the man and reminiscing about his wit and gentle nature give some comfort.
PHOTO: JACK AT HOME WITH A PENN RELAYS AWARD PRESENTED FROM VILLANOVA. DOUGLAS M. BOVITT/COURIER POST FILE
Jack Pyrah never had it easy. The long-time Villanova coach had a gift for processing the hard times he experienced in his life into empathy for others. Jack made every place he was better by virtue of his positive personality. At Jack's service, Gloucester Catholic grad Jim Rafferty from Jack's hometown of Gloucester, NJ recalled Jack giving him a special pair of spikes from Villanova after a loss to 3 rivals from Bishop Eustace in a high school track meet. "Give these a try," said Jack. To Jim the shoes from Jack seemed to have magical properties and he easily vanquished the 3 in his next race. Jack let the neighborhood boys practice pole-vaulting in his back yard. The boys frequently finished one-two-three in their meets and one of the boys, Jim Waters, went on to set the South Jersey Pole Vault record in 1967.
Marty Liquori- considered by many to be the best American middle distance runner- ran for both Jack and Jumbo Elliott at Villanova as part of the legendary Villanova teams and recalled Jack's impact on Villanova's great runners: "We all realize now that Jumbo had a real attention-deficit problem and it was Jack who kept everything on an even keel. He was the detail guy to Jumbo's George Patton. Some coaches may have been able to do both, but I never had one. As Jumbo said, 'I kick them and Jack kisses them.' Without either of them Villanova in the '70s would not have been as successful." Jack and Jumbo together coached Olympic gold-medal winners and won numerous national and Penn Relay titles.
Present Villanova Coach Marcus O'Sullivan recalled how Jack was always positive, and always had an encouraging word for his runners no matter their performance on the track. "Jack was a huge inspiration to me as a runner and a coach." Marcus said. "Jack's loyalty and dedication to Villanova were unmatched. I remember Jack leaning on Assistant Coach Jim Tuppeny out on the cross-country course because he was having some difficulty walking. Then when Jim Tuppeny got sick, I saw him leaning on Jack. It was a touching thing to see. I saw Jack's great gift after I became coach at Villanova- his gentleness and positive outlook and limitless patience." With a smile Marcus also recalled Jack's gift for gab. "Jack would call while you were making dinner to chat and the next thing you knew it seemed like it was time to get the kids ready for school."
I can recall getting calls from Jack right after dinner and my wife wishing me a good night, knowing I would be talking to Jack for a while. The most amazing part of the conversation- nothing was ever about Jack. It was about you, the team, and runners you were coaching and the conversations always featured Jack's priceless stories told in his rich gentle voice.
Herb Lorenz was the top runner in the Southern New Jersey and Philadelphia area in the '60s and early '70s and then became one of the top Masters runners in the country. He recalled similar memories of Jack: "My fondest memories of Jack include late-night phone calls and lengthy conversations. In 1964 I had just moved to South Jersey (from Germany) and after meeting Jack I realized that he was the person who knew the history of South Jersey running dating to the days of Browning Ross as well as where track and field meets were held and where to go for top-notch competition.
"Jack usually would call late at night. When the phone would ring at that hour, my wife, Irma, would say 'That must be Jack.' And it was. During those hour-long phone calls Jack would do most of the talking. In today's world of e-mail and text messaging would Jack still be sharing his knowledge with someone who wanted to know all that he knew? I would hope so.
"It really is a shame that in today's world there are very few people the likes of Jack. He never was in the sport for the money but for the pure love of it. Many people in sports could learn a lesson from Jack Pyrah. Jack was truly an icon, one who should be immortalized for his quiet manner and his pure love of the sport. The South Jersey running community has lost one of its biggest fans and supporters. Jack will be sorely missed."
I found out just how modest Jack was when I went to his house to finish interviewing him for an article I was doing about him, in person. He deflected every question about himself and his accomplishments by changing the subject or using self-deprecating humor. I decided to make myself useful by fixing his air conditioner.
I had first gotten to know Jack my senior year in high school as his son Jack Jr. was a freshman on the team. I would have known him even longer had I listened to my coach and his close friend, Browning Ross. "Jack Pyrah was at the finish line, did you talk to him?" Browning would ask. Browning said his name as one word and was puzzled that I was shy about introducing myself to Jack. I was a little intimidated. All of the college coaches I'd heard of were on the mean side- Woody Hayes, Bobby Knight, etc. Even the Jumbo Elliott stories I'd heard all ended with a punch line like "And then Jumbo said go roll in the snow you dumb SOB…" Of course when I met Jack I saw he was approachable and extremely nice, and always encouraging.
Jack was a voracious reader of anything sports related. Browning told me "Well I cleaned out some of the old magazines in my basement. I gave an old Sports Illustrated I had to Jack." "Was Eddie Matthews on the cover?" I asked. "Yes he was. How did you know that?" asked Browning. "Because it's the first one and worth a fortune," I said. Browning said, "Crap! I've got to get that back from Jack!"
Last summer Jack called and asked me if I'd seen the results of the World Track Championships. "Who won the 1500 meters?" he asked. "The Tunisian," I answered, proud of my power of recall. With a touch of exasperation Jack replied, "Which one? There are two good Tunisians." I immediately got the paper out of the recycling bin and read him the results. Jack was right- the Tunisians had taken first and second in the race.
I was always amazed at Jack's ability to reconstruct a cross-country race from a one inch result in the newspaper, seemingly able to visualize the race more clearly than I who had been there the day before: "So it looks like your number-one runner was a little slower, was it at their place? Might be a little long; they probably didn't measure it. Your number-two runner was a lot further back earlier in the year right? Shame you can't get someone from the soccer team who isn't playing. You could turn them into a better runner than your number-five runner who was pretty far back…." I treasured those conversations.
Dan Baker, the voice of the Phillies, Eagles, Big Five, and Penn Relays recalled Jack: "Meticulous is a word I would use to describe Jack. He was always so prepared when we spotted and kept statistics for some of the visiting NFL play-by-play-announcers (for the Eagles) at Franklin Field and the Vet in the late 1960s and 1970s.
"As you know Jack Pyrah was always well dressed. I can't remember him not wearing a sports jacket or suit coat and usually a necktie as well. I don't think I ever saw someone as well dressed as Jack was."
Tom Osler recalled Jack and his impact on the Philadelphia running scene: "Jack was certainly one of a kind. His contribution wasn't any great coaching theory but the way he dealt with people. Jack was a true gentleman. When I met him in 1954 he was "coach" of the Shanahan Catholic Club.
"They had a large clubhouse on Lanacaster Avenue close to Fairmount Park. He was instrumental at that time in sponsoring the Shanahan Marathon in late January of every year from 1954 to about 1964. The race was a three-loop race that started and finished in front of the clubhouse. I finished this race in 1957 when I was a senior in Camden High in 3:33. I was 16 and it was my first marathon finish. Then the race was moved to Fairmount Park in December of 1965. The race was named the Ruthrauff Marathon in honor of Dr William Ruthrauff who was a friend and coach to many runners, including me. The race gradually became known as the Philadelphia Marathon. So Jack was an originator of the Philly Marathon which I suppose is now 54 years old. Jack was a great friend, and I shall miss him so much."
Mike McIntosh, the former Canadian National Junior Coach, recalled Jack's influence spreading to Canada: "Coach Pyrah developed a Canadian pipeline (secondary only to the Irish pipeline) of track and field athletes who he was mainly responsible for recruiting to Villanova's scholarship program. Jerry Bouma was the first Canadian athlete to receive a scholarship to Villanova with many more to follow including Glenn Bogue the 400-meter bronze medalist at the 1978 Commonwealth Games. Bogue commented that Jack Pyrah was the kindest man he had ever met and at the same time one of the most knowledgeable people he knew in track and field. Throughout the years Coach Pyrah and I enjoyed many great moments together with family and friends; his fantastic wit and humor was enjoyed by all that knew him. I will always treasure his friendship and the many memories we shared over the past 33 years."
Jack Pyrah Jr. recalls, "My dad found his vocation- coaching track athletes and cross-country runners. "He was a peacemaker and a born leader in his own way. I remember hearing so many times that he was like a father away from home for so many of those boys at Villanova. Not too many people have a career that allows them to be called that.
"One of the things that we all have to do in this world is find out what we are here to do. My father was a man who did that."
When Jack was honored in March at half time of the Villanova-Syracuse basketball game in Philadelphia for his enshrinement in the National Coaches Hall of Fame he received a long standing ovation from the more than 19,000 people in attendance. I thought it was symbolic of the way those who have met and known Jack through the years would show their affection for him if gathered together in one place.
At Jack's service everyone did join in singing the Villanova Alma Mater one last time to honor Jack:
When we leave your sheltering walls,
we shall leave an echo ringing
Through your treasured halls
We will leave an echo ringing
In the silent night
While our memories are singing
Of the Blue and White
When the last big game is over
And the last roll call is heard
When the oldest pedagogue
Has had his final word
We shall come to ALMA MATER
In our dreams again
With prayer for Villanova
And a sweet amen.
Villanova Alma Mater by Al Dubin and Joseph Burke
Jack is survived by his wife of 50 years, Jean, sons Jack Pyrah Jr., William Van Tassel and John Van Tassel, and daughter Patricia Johnson as well as nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. He is also survived by the countless people he has touched in so many ways.