Great projects are rarely conceived according to the first draft and sometimes it takes a broken play to score a touchdown, but the volunteers who make the Mattapoisett Road Race what it’s become over a half-century have one thing in common: an ethic borne of passion for athleticism, their community and the Old Rochester Regional High School graduates who gain opportunities from the funds raised by the annual race.
On this July 4, that army of familiar faces was not prevalent after the coronavirus pandemic leveraged the 50th anniversary running into a virtual event with remote participation (see adjacent article). But the many friendly helpers who have marshaled the race from its 1971 genesis to this day and beyond are no less relevant.
The countless hours of effort it takes in so many facets to plan for, guide, and protect a typical field of 1,000 competitors will always need more members, and The Wanderer asked Danny White to help us recognize some of those people behind the scenes.
White was a college student when he got involved in the Mattapoisett Road Race. Much more recently (1998), he tried with Steve Heath to form an alumni group for ORR graduates and organized a couple of fundraisers.
“It didn’t make it like the one we have right now,” said White. “We didn’t have the 503(c non-profit application) set up properly. Every time we tried to raise money, we ended up causing more trouble.”
That’s when race founder Bob Gardner, along with fellow originals Carl Nelson and Gerry Oliva, approached White and Heath and asked them if they would be interested in taking over the road race “because we’d fit right in,” recalled White.
Oliva, the ORR football coach, taught social studies and history at the high school.
As White tells, Gardner had already approached the Lions Club, but the race’s primary fundraising interest in scholarships for ORR graduates did not mesh with the Lions Club’s mission to allocate 80 percent of proceeds to Lions Club charities.
“Bob didn’t like that idea, he always wanted 100 percent to go back into scholarships for ORR students,” said White. “He said, ‘No thank you, that’s not what we’re looking for.’”
Gardner didn’t leave the race-organization team, but Dan and Holly White were suddenly neck deep for the next 11 years. Holly only recently stepped down “because she was doing everything,” according to Dan. “There was a lot of paperwork involved, and she was pretty much doing it by herself.”
Dan has stayed on in recent years to assist Race Director Bill Tilden as “race course director.” It has remained his mission to go knocking on the doors of the people who normally manage the street corners along the course.
White considers the volunteerism of Barry and Susan Perkins legendary.
The Perkins meet the runners in three locations, running their own race to be in the right spot in time to move barriers and direct runners. “They would come down North Street and turn up Church Street – Barry would place a barrier against the (vehicular) traffic. Then they would meet them at Hammond Street, then as runners passed by North Street,” recounted White.
From the early days on, Gardner’s neighbors have tossed their hats into the ring.
Along with accepting race-day registrations, Karen and David Manning worked the night before the race, distributing t-shirts just as Betty Oliva, Gerry’s wife, had done back in the day. White was thrilled that the Mannings came back from North Carolina for Saturday morning’s dedication of the plaque honoring the late Bob Gardner.
The time-honored tradition of t-shirt ordering was picked up by Caty Fuerman, who volunteers with her husband, Dr. David Fuerman.
Joanne O’Day, another Gardner neighbor, walked up to Oakland Street where runners cross from Old Marion Road and Shipyard Lane toward the waterfront. There, she made sure the runners turned onto the correct path for the final push.
Gardner neighbor Donald Linhares would tell Dan, “Give me two or three cones, I’ll take care of the rest,” and the Oxford Creamery area would be properly marked.
Eddie Walsh and Kenny Taft put out the cones to establish running lanes to and from the lighthouse, making sure the competitors coming and going did not cross one another’s paths.
“The runners would go through Tupelo Lane, wind through there, then Ned’s Point Road across the street from the boatyard,” said White. “There was always somebody who would turn all the runners that (had already gone two miles).”
As masses of runners approach Ned’s Point, they are greeted by posted signs cautioning boat launchers that from 9-11 am on July 4, to expect to be stuck in the parking lot.
Providing a truck and two members of the staff, the Fire Department always follows the last runner. The Mattapoisett Police is at the ready with an ambulance in the event of injury or heat exhaustion.
“My job was to keep the course safe,” said White, who received a major assist from Barry Denham, the painter of the start and finish lines. “Barry was automatic, he would make sure that was done. Bob and I did the mile markers.”
Along with dumpsters, Denham provided cones, orange barrels and A-frame barriers that come in handy especially at the Church Street extension and the twists and turns up Tupelo Lane.
What did volunteers get for their part? “We’d give them a t-shirt,” said White.
It was a token, albeit small, of an effort greatly appreciated and one that can never be paid back.
Former Greater New Bedford Vocational-Technical High School Superintendent Jeff Riley, a Mattapoisett resident, directed traffic at the Shipyard.
Gary Cushman and Tom Anthony managed the runners at Pearl Street and Hammond, and Peter Trow and John Guilherme have made significant efforts for the race over the last 10-15 years, according to White.
According to White, Rory McFee always took a group of students from the ORR track club down to the lighthouse to man two water stops. A junior high teacher who worked under Gardner, McFee gave the kids t-shirts and cups of water to keep them hydrated.
“And we picked up after ourselves,” said White. “By 12 o’clock you wouldn’t have known anyone was there. Everybody helped.”
Mike Esposito and his family always had a water table on Ned’s Point Road. So did Teresa Dahl, a history teacher at ORR.
White said that regular volunteers Ben and Lauralee Handel could not make it back this year due to the risks of travel during the pandemic.
In the early days of the race when Gardner led from a golf cart driven by Shawn Walsh, runners lined up at Ned’s Point. Not far away, Dean Doran pointed his miniature cannon into Buzzards Bay and shot a blank. That way, White explained, the volunteers at the finish line knew when to start their stopwatches.
Timekeeping has progressed over the years.
Steve and Merri Heath, for 30 years regular volunteers, started and maintained the race clock located at the 1-mile marker on Church Street. Runners could also see the clock approaching the 4- mile mark.
John Braun, co-founder of the Acushnet Road Race and JB’s Road Race Management, handled the official timing for 30 years. Now a much larger company called Racewire handles the timing, but the local volunteers remain at the heart of the Mattapoisett Road Race.
“Next year, the day before the race, we’re going to recognize these people at the wharf,” said White. “It’s tough to do the day of the race because they’re manning their posts.”
By Mick Colageo