Nathanson's kids use opportunity to urge coach on

MICHAEL OLESKER

February 12, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

This one's for Jerry Nathanson, who only goes back to the beginning of everything.

You want testimonials, I could give you testimonials: former kids who ran track for him, who ran cross-country, who wrote newspaper stories about his teams, who grew up and still remember the first time their lives crossed his.

First day of high school, September of 1960, the cluttered little office of the Collegian, City College's student newspaper:

"So you want to write sports, huh?"

"Well, uh . . ."

The first line was uttered by a high school senior named John Conkling, who wore a necktie and rolled-up shirtsleeves and affected the air of a big city newsman. He was sports editor of the Collegian.

The second line, a golden instance of semi-articulation, was mine. I muttered it into my shoe tops. I was 15 years old and built like a praying mantis and given to statements of complete inaudibility. I wanted to write but first had to pass a test.

"Go see Nathanson."

"Nathanson?"

"In the gym," explained Conkling, and he turned on his heels and walked away.

There was Nathanson, strictly as advertised, standing just outside the coaches' dressing room when I got down to the gym. He was tall and lean and had a voice like bad plumbing. I was prepared to turn and run at the first hint that I was bothering him.

"The Collegian," I muttered. "They told me to get a quote. I could come back another time if . . ."

"Why don't we say this," said Nathanson, whose cross-country team was about to begin workouts. He put an arm around my shoulders. "We're not in this to finish second."

"We're not?" I said.

"Hell, no," said Nathanson.

Thirty years later, I still remember the rush that came over me. In a few small gestures -- the arm around the shoulder, the mild epithet, the use of "we," he'd not only put me at ease but made me feel as if I belonged in this brand-new school.

He did that for so many kids that nobody, not even Nathanson, could possibly have kept track. He did it for scores of his former kids who showed up a year ago at the 5th Regiment Armory, where they staged an old-timers track meet and testimonial to Nathanson, and he did it for all those guys now remembering him when he's having some difficulties.

He's 77 years old now, and he's having a little trouble with his breathing, and it turns out a lot of his old kids are still keeping track of him.

"Oh, he's still fighting," his wife, Nelda, was saying the other night. "You know Jerry, he's a fighter. And the cards and letters have helped so much."

Her husband was in the next room, hooked up to an oxygen apparatus. The kids who ran track and cross-country for him a long time ago at City College, the ones who heard he's been having some health problems lately, have been writing him and telling him to hang in.

In his time at City College, Nathanson's teams always hung in. He'd stand in the center of the track, with all the City kids gathered around him, and he'd deliver pep talks that sounded like something between Knute Rockne and George Patton, and then his teams would obliterate everybody.

They literally never lost from somewhere in the mid-1950s to somewhere in the late 1960s, and his teams lost only a handful of meets in the years before and after, and they can keep records forever and they'll still never equal the dominating teams of Jerry Nathanson.

And that was the least of his contribution.

More important, he taught a lot of kids lessons in becoming adults, in having personal standards, in a sense of self-discipline, in getting along with people who weren't exactly like you.

"The hell with color and religion and all that stuff," he'd growl. "You're either a man, or you're not."

The years have turned the words into an echo, but three decades ago, when America was just beginning to pay attention to its own credo and the city of Baltimore was tagging along, that was pretty inspiring language.

"No question about it, he changed my life," Lee Raskin was saying yesterday.

Raskin's the one who put together the Nathanson testimonial at the armory last year. The turnout was glorious: Nick Lee and Steve Lamb, Alvin Rawlings and Joel Kruh, Tony Virgilio and Ted Levin and Lou Craig and Sam Caldwell, scores of guys who not only starred for Nathanson but went on to levels of excellence in their lives.

The night at the armory was lovely. A couple of people gave speeches, and a couple of races were run, and then Nathanson got up and said some words in a voice choked with emotion.

And then everybody gathered around the old coach, and somebody snapped a picture for him to hold on to.

A year later, times have gotten a little tougher for Jerry Nathanson. He's fighting to catch his breath these days. But, a year later, 30 years later, one thing's the same: All around town, his old kids are still gathered around him in spirit, still thinking of him, still thankful their lives crossed his and he helped put them on the right track.

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