Penn Relays

— AP Photo/Rich Schultz

While I have penned many memories of Penn Relays in past columns, today I am highlighting some of my favorite recollections of the Penn Relays.

My memories of the Penn Relays invariably evoke the challenges that many out-of-town relaygoers faced in finding a place to lay their heads. Friends would become closer friends and enemies would seek to become friends, especially with those who lived in the Philadelphia area.

The hope of finding a place to stay was a major reason for these friendships. For many, the main mode of travel to Philadelphia would be to flash the thumb or in other words, hitchhike.

Once arriving in Philadelphia, I can recall cases where one person rented a hotel room and 10 or more people would sleep in that one room. One of the most popular hotels where people stayed was the Essex, located, back then, at 13th and Filbert streets. However, if you could not manage to “hook up” with an old or new friend and stay at their home, or if sharing a hotel room with others was not possible, then people simply slept in automobiles. But where one slept was not a big deal at the relays. The time spent at the Penn Relays Carnival events and the time spent partying, left little time to sleep.

Partying during the Penn Relays started on Friday evening of the Penn Relays weekend with either a cabaret or a house party. The Imperial Ballroom which was at 60th and Walnut streets was one of the major places for a cabaret. Times Auditorium at Broad and Spruce streets was another popular place. House parties were by invitation or word of mouth.

After a night of fun and little sleep, we were ready to head out to Franklin Field to engage in Penn Relay activities. While partying was big fun in the past, in my adult years, Friday night partying at the home of Gus Dingle is a memory that many of my friends long to experience again. But this memory with just “the boys,” drinks and the pig have been left, unfortunately, back in the day.

If you attended the Penn Relays this weekend, you know that it was not cheap. Admission, a program booklet and food and drinks costed an “arm and a leg.” If you attended the Penn Relays, back in the day, five dollars went a very long way at this event. For $3, you could gain general admission to Franklin Field. For 50 to 75 cents, one could purchase a program booklet. The balance could get you a hot dog and a soda. Parking? I do not recall parking lots. There seemed to be enough room for everyone to park on the streets. Guess what? When you returned after the relays, your automobile would still be there even though there were no alarm systems nor “steering wheel clubs.”

In recent years, people show up dressed down as far as public regulations would permit; back in the day, you showed up on Saturday as “clean as the board of health.” I recall one of my close friends reminding me during my college Penn Relay days, that one did not get a new Easter outfit. Instead, one would get a new outfit for the Penn Relays. Yes, most people attended the Penn Relays to watch the track and field events. However, a large number attended the relays to simply “profile” and watch the young ladies. If you think the young ladies are out in force during today’s relays, nothing compared with young ladies at the Penn Relays, back in the day.

Back in the day, Morgan State College, now Morgan State University, was a major “player” in the relay events, in particular, the mile relay. Even though it has been more than 60 years, when I sat in my seat to watch this year’s relay events, the 1600-meter relay or the mile relay during my era, I still can hear the chant — Morgan! Morgan! Morgan! The chant would become deafening. Today, in some sprint events we find competition billed as the USA against the world. Back then, while it had no special name, it was Morgan State College against all other colleges or universities, particularly against Villanova University.

You must remember that our Black athletes were not highly recruited for attendance at predominately white universities in the past. Thus, Black colleges and universities, such as Morgan State, dominated in many sporting events, in particular, track and field.

While some of these men are no longer with us, I can still remember the names of the Morgan sprinters, as they remain with most back in the day Penn Relay fans. Names such as Paul Winder, Tommy Anderson, Robert “Rob-Roy” Ridley III and the Smith Brothers, Lou and Hosea come to mind. Other “horses” were Ronald Merriweather, Sy Killer and Nick Ellis. Will any of us forget the outstanding feats of Josh Culbreath, the great Morgan hurdler? While these runners were my contemporaries, I have been reminded by my good friend and fraternity brother, Robert “Rob-Roy” Ridley, that these men followed in the footsteps of Morgan runners of many years ago; runners that I was too young to see perform. These were athletes with blazing speed that were molded into outstanding runners under the leadership of Morgan’s coach, Eddie Paulette Hunt or “Eddie P” as he was called. He contributed significantly to putting Morgan State College track and field team on the map, back in the day.

My seat today is in the infamous “Riggy’s” corner. I have sat here for the past 60 years. It was affectionately called, “Riggy’s Corner” in recognition of the many runners who tightened up or acquired rigor mortis, an expression given to such runners by spectators. This section was also known as “the horseshoe” as it is that end of Franklin Field leading to the finish line for relay events. Many of us still talk about the rivalry between the high school track powerhouses from back then, the Speedboys of West Philadelphia and the Hilltoppers of Overbrook. This rivalry is just a figment of one’s imagination from the past. These two schools dominated the Philadelphia high school mile relay, when I was in school. But as strong as these two schools were, it took Lower Merion High School, with Ducky Jackson, George Hern, Tommy Anderson and anchored by “Popcorn” Shippen to bring the first Championship of America Relay victory to a local team in the Penn Relays. Now, we can only pray that one of our American teams will finish in one of the High School Championship of America events over our Jamaican rivals

We all know people that still gather at the Penn Relays, each year, to relive memories of Penn Relays. These men, several sizes larger, out of shape, out of breath from climbing the steps in the stands, still boast of their past accomplishments. Most boast of their feats when they were on the track while some boast of their feats when they profiled, scoped out the young ladies and partied all night long.

Fortunately, those track stars of yesteryear and those that proclaimed to have had “game” clearly understand that they are not what they used to be. Thus, participating in track and field events and boy/girl relationships are but a memory. The others, however, some being my very close friends, still think they have the capacity to think, behave and function as “young men.” They have not come to accept that at 70 years plus, no man has the kind of energy they had in the past. Yet, on Friday and Saturday, a few, and I wish to emphasize just a few, like to relive their Penn Relay memories by reflecting on their feats during the Penn Relays Carnival, back in the day.

Alonzo Kittrels can be reached at backintheday@phillytrib.com or The Philadelphia Tribune, Back In The Day, 520 S. 16th St., Philadelphia, PA 19146

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