Some three decades later, the boy had become a man who was a reluctant high school teacher and had moved to the Oregon Coast to try and make a transition out of teaching and become a writer. He had tried becoming a writer many times in his youth and all pretentious attempts had failed. He never got anything going.
At the Oregon Coast, he began discovering, investigating and publishing unique Oregon stories, many of them with a coastal theme. On one of his story reconnaissance missions either up or down Highway 101, he wandered around Coos Bay and decided to visit the Coos Art Museum. There, to his utter shock, he discovered the Prefontaine Memorial Gallery: one small room where photographs of Pre, his medals, ribbons, headlines, trophies and awards were displayed, many of them in wooden cases built by Pre’s father. Admission was free.
The memorabilia stunned the teacher, but what stunned him even more was finding a large, handsomely-bound register on a table also built by Pre’s father. The register invited visitors to record what Pre meant to them. Entries dated back to the late 1980s.
Visitors had poured it out to Pre in longhand and the teacher sat down at the table and read every entry. It took three hours. After finishing, the teacher was crying and knew there was nothing like this document in the annals of American sporting history. He knew he also had just read one of the most unique and moving testaments to the spirit of an American life that exists in our culture.
Who signed in and wrote something about Pre? Entire high school cross-country teams on a pilgrimage. Those who had raced against Pre—and lost. (They always mention that.) Ex girlfriends. His hometown buddies. Former Oregon Ducks. Europeans. Hayward Field fans. They wrote lines such as, “I find Steve’s pure focus replenishing…Pre, thanks for reminding me why sports matter…I liked watching you run…Oregon was lucky to have you as a legend…I named my son after you…”
And there were hundreds of entries with derivations of the verb “inspire.”
The teacher was beginning a new teaching job a few weeks after his visit to the Prefontaine Memorial Gallery, this one teaching English and Journalism in Lincoln City in a decrepit building three blocks from the ocean. As he walked out of the Coos Art Museum, he knew exactly how he would begin his first day in the classroom: he would roll out a writing workshop based on a series of prompts about running and Pre.
His new job coincided with the 30th anniversary of Pre’s death. Pre had had a slight association with Nike, then a fledgling athletic shoe company, toward the end of his racing career. So, when the anniversary rolled around, Nike launched a slick commemorative campaign across various media platforms.
In the glossy ads that appeared in the fancy capitalist magazines, complete with a stunning photograph of Pre’s last race where he won by 200 yards ahead of the second place finisher, Nike asked two questions: 1) “Where are all the rock star runners?” ; 2) “Where is the next Pre?”
The teacher thought someone could write a big fat novel answering those important questions but he was more of a journalist, certainly not a writer of fiction, so he never attempted it. He didn’t have the guts.
But Pre had unexpectedly reentered his life with the gallery and print ads. He tacked the ads on the wall behind his desk. It was as much for him as for the students he hoped would notice the ads and ask questions.
On the first day of the new school year, seniors taking Senior English entered the teacher’s classroom and found desks to occupy. The bell rang and instead of boring the students to death with roll call and rules, like all the other teachers did, the teacher took off like Pre did when a race started.
He passed out paper and pens to get things moving right away. He projected a picture of Pre on the wall and provided a 30-second introduction to his incredible but short-lived career. He told the students Pre grew up on the Oregon Coast and used that as his greatest advantage to succeed. They all thought living at the Oregon Coast doomed them.
The teacher explained the writing workshop. It would last one period. Respond to the prompts any way you want. Once students had written on all the prompts, they would cull (a new vocabulary word!) their responses and then choose the one or two or three that spoke to them the most. They would merge and polish their initial responses into a 100-word mini essay and then hand in the piece as they walked out the door. Turn it in, A. An A for the first day of Senior English. No homework.
Describe a time you ran away.
When is the best time to run?
What direction do you run?
Describe the best weather to run in.
Describe a time you chased someone or some thing or were chased.
What’s the song playing in your mind when you run?
Complete this sentence…When I run…
Describe the barriers or obstacles in your way as you run.
What makes you run?
“A lot of people run a race to see who is fastest. I run to see who has the most guts, who can punish himself into exhausting pace, and then at the end, punish himself even more.”
“To give anything less than your best, is to sacrifice the gift.”
Forty-seven minutes later, 32 seniors turned in 32 mini essays and their school year was off and running, just the way Pre started his races.