Everett Sanders, his fingers wrapped around the steering wheel, squeezing hard, was in full panic mode that April morning in 1925.
Sanders coached one of the finest mile relay teams of its class in the land, a fact that would be evident if only he could deliver his athletes to the prestigious Penn Relays. But barely twenty-five miles into the journey to Philadelphia, their vehicle got stuck in the mud.
“The car just refused to move,” noted an account in the Instano, the Indiana State Normal School yearbook. “Persuasion was necessary. A little additional horse power was needed.”
With Sanders frantic—he was “loosening the seams of his raincoat by profuse perspiration,” according to the Instano—the school’s fleet foursome quickly rode to the rescue, for once calling on muscle rather than speed. Norman King, Clair Borland, Walter Patterson, and John Alexick exited the vehicle, leaned against the back end, pushed in unison and, while “dodging small, adherent portions of terra firma” and muddying their shoes, extricated the car.
The ISNS contingent ultimately found that crossing the state of Pennsylvania in that era before interstates proved a greater challenge than dominating on the track at historic Franklin Field. The team members won their event in spectacular fashion a day later, shattering the national Normal School record with a time of three minutes, thirty-seven seconds.
“Seldom has an educational institution been represented at the Penn Relays classic by a relay team equal to the one that represented Indiana in the 1925 games,” the Indiana Evening Gazette noted in its coverage of the race.
The spoils of victory included gold watches for each runner and a massive Franklin Medal—actually a bronze medallion affixed to a walnut back measuring twenty-five inches in diameter—for the school’s trophy case. The medal, awarded to all relay winners, depicts University of Pennsylvania founder Benjamin Franklin greeting four athletes, representing a relay team. A lightning bolt in the design symbolizes Franklin’s work in the study of electricity.
The ISNS quartet was likely astonished to win a coveted Franklin Medal, for all the signs seemed to portend disaster, not triumph. First, the team’s departure was delayed twenty minutes while the runners conducted a desperate search for safety pins, utilized to attach their numbers to their uniforms. They fell further behind schedule due to their messy encounter with the mud. And the daylong journey across the state—via Ebensburg, Huntingdon, Harrisburg, and Lancaster—left them little time to work out in West Chester before darkness fell. Their confidence was surely shaken during that twilight practice session when, according to the Instano, they “gave a splendid lesson in dropping the baton.”
But regardless of what they accomplished after leaving school, all four counted winning at the Penn Relays among their most cherished achievements.
The team’s hopes seemed to fade further in the moments before the race when Patterson’s head began to throb.
“I recall my father telling me that he had an incredible headache that day,” says Robert Patterson, who resides in Alpine, Texas. “He inherited these headaches from his mother, who would go to bed with them. Just before the race, he came down with this tremendous migraine, and the doctor did not want him to run. But he finally convinced the doctor that it was all right for him to run, and he did, and they won.”
King, whose best sport was football—he was selected to the school’s all-time team in 1960 as a halfback—set the tone by providing what Sanders called “one of the prettiest starts I have ever seen.” Next up was Borland, an Indiana native who later coached track at Indiana High School.
“The cheering section of the University of Pennsylvania is at the third corner of the track,” Sanders said in the Gazette story. “Many a race has been lost on that track, the runner starting to sprint too soon because of the cheering. Not so with Clair, in spite of the fact he likes to fight and was challenged by a runner from Cheyney Normal School. Faithful to his instructions, he started the final spurt at the fourth corner and led his man by yards.”
Fellow Indiana Countian Patterson, a native of West Lebanon, extended the advantage on the third leg.
“He ran like an old performer,” said Sanders, his choice of adjective suggesting the teenager performed like a veteran, “and gave the baton to Captain Alexick with a good lead to his credit. Johnny always runs a consistent quarter-mile and he ran true to form, bringing his team to victory.”
Contemporary accounts neglected to mention the margin of that victory or even which school earned runner-up honors. All that mattered to ISNS fans is that their relay team reigned as the premier Normal School quartet in the nation. According to the Instano, “Telegrams, celebrating, and an uneventful journey back to Alma Mater concluded one of the most interesting, inspiring, and profitable trips that a Normal School track team has taken for a number of years.”
The ISNS relay team’s transcendent moment still resonated more than half a century later. King, Borland, Patterson, and Alexick were invited back to campus in 1977 and honored by President Robert Wilburn.
The four had by then become successes in life, much as they once were in track. Borland served twenty-seven years as executive director of the Wyoming Valley chapter of the American Red Cross, based in Wilkes-Barre. King was an Accounting professor at Shippensburg from 1947 to 1970. Patterson, after earning a doctoral degree, served as principal of Needham (Mass.) High School and later as superintendent of the Needham School System. And Alexick was director of the Erie (Pa.) Museum from 1941 to 1969.
But regardless of what they accomplished after leaving school, all four counted winning at the Penn Relays among their most cherished achievements. In fact, when Walter Patterson died in 1998, listed in his obituary along with his career highlights, his degrees, and his beloved family members was a reference to the relay team that dazzled the crowd at Franklin Field, shattered a national record, and brought a Franklin Medal back to campus.
No wonder Everett Sanders panicked that April morning in 1925. Perhaps he realized better than anyone that his four passengers, if only he could get them to the starting line, were destined for glory at the Penn Relays.