A Runner’s Life

On Wednesday mornings at the St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry in northeast Indianapolis, volunteers bag groceries for delivery to the homebound. Workers stand a few feet apart at a row of folding tables and load items into the bags, and then push the bag along to the next person. At the end of the line, a volunteer puts the bags into grocery carts that are wheeled over to the loading dock.

Bill Farney usually takes the end position, pushing the carts into place, reloading the tables with canned goods, and keeping the running count of how many bags have been completed. He’s a tall, trim man with white hair, maybe as tall as six-three, with a ready smile. He’s usually the first worker signed in, often arriving before 5:30 A.M. On this day, he looks up and notices that there’s a shortage of carts. He takes off at a jog to the other side of the warehouse. He brings back several carts at a time, chasing them down when the front cart slips out of line. He makes pretty good time, and he’s not even breathing hard when he gets back to his spot.

Bill Farney is 85 years old.

“I really haven’t (retired),” he says. “But I’m just working part-time, only have a few (sales) accounts left. Then I do the Christmas Tree Store. But that’s only every two weeks.”

He doesn’t mention that he also works one day a week here at the pantry, and officiates high school and college track. I tell him I’m amazed at his schedule, because….you know….he’s eighty-five.

He chuckles and looks down, embarrassed. “Well, if you sit around, you get old.”

Bill grew up in Hutchinson, Kansas, graduating high school in 1949. To be fair, the running part may come a bit easier for him than most octogenarians

“Back in those days, junior high –seventh, eighth, and ninth grades – were separate from the high school. When I was a ninth-grader, a couple guys in my class were going out for tennis at the high school. So I decided I’d go out for track, and I made the team.

“That year I ran the medley relay and we went to state. I anchored the team. They brought it in first and gave me the lead, and I lost it right away. But the last lap I pulled away.”

 

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Bill continued to run track, but also played football.

“I was a halfback,” he says. “I was fairly fast, made a few touchdowns. But I dislocated my shoulder as a junior.

“In those days they didn’t operate on shoulders like they do now. They got a harness for me, but I couldn’t raise my arm high enough to stiff arm anybody. I got by, but that’s why I didn’t go out for college football. (The shoulder) would go in and out all the time.”

(As Bill is telling me this, I realize I’ve been rubbing my slightly arthritic knee. I’m embarrassed to tell him I’ve been laid up for a few days with it. From refereeing soccer. Ahem. Youth soccer. With….um….thirty-minute periods.)

After high school, Farney got a partial scholarship to run track at Kansas. Freshmen weren’t allowed to compete directly against other schools, so they did it remotely. Which means they ran their event on the home track, then telegraphed the results to the opposing school, who telegraphed their own results back. (Which may explain the virtual absence of wagering on freshman college track in the 1940s.)

In his sophomore year at Kansas, Bill ran cross country and the team made it to the NCAA tournament.

“It was the first time I’d ever been on an airplane,” he says. “I was the fourth best runner out of five. We didn’t have a sixth and seventh runner like most schools. We just had five guys, so we all had to finish. But we won our conference, which was the only way to get to the NCAA tournament. For me, that was big time.”

“After sophomore year I ran indoor track, but I developed a throat problem and never could get in real good shape for the outdoor season. My junior year, I just kind of fizzled out. And there were better runners that came along, like Wes Santee.”

(For the record, Santee wasn’t just a “better runner”. He held several world records and won three individual NCAA titles during his career. So it’s not like Bill was replaced by some guy with a bum ankle.)

After college, Bill joined the Marine Corps, got married, had kids, and settled in to a sales career. He kept one foot in track, though, coaching Catholic Youth Organization teams at his parish and officiating. I asked him how he got started in coaching, and he said he took a job assisting at a high school when he was laid off. He got another sales job a few weeks later, but continued to honor his coaching contract. While also working part-time at a hardware store. As an aside, Bill (unnecessarily) adds “So I never was completely idle.”

Being idle doesn’t seem to be on Bill Farney’s agenda. I ask him whether he still runs. I mean, outside of the warehouse.

“Not much,” he says. “I ran yesterday, but only a mile.”

Gulp.

“I’m so slow,” he says. “I exercise in the basement. I’ve got all my used equipment down there. I have a Nordic track, a treadmill, a bike, and a weight bench.

“But I didn’t do anything today.”

A real slacker. It’s ten A.M., and he’s only been at the food pantry loading grocery bags and wrestling shopping carts for five hours.

Break time over, Bill Farney gets up from the table and heads back into the warehouse to finish out his day. Me? I’m going home now. Almost time for my nap.

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