Ralph Durant said he was "in the business of reinventing the lives of children."
His lofty aspiration followed a simple design. Give the children of Baltimore an endeavor, in Durant's case age group track and field, that rewards only after it exhausts. Run them ragged for two hours. After they go home, eat and tend to schoolwork, they'll be too tired to go back out and get lost on the city's unseemly streets.
Repeat, at least three nights a week and on weekends during the summer.
A longtime employee of the city's Recreation and Parks Department and the founder of the Edward L. Waters Track and Field Alliance Club, Durant would have turned 55 next week. Cancer ended his life in early June, however, and left a void that dozens of men and women are scrambling to fill.
Durant was part of the shadow government that steers youth sports, club coaches who get little notice but have an immense influence on high school All-Metro teams.
One of his organization's most enduring events, the Cliff Wiley Track Classic, will be conducted for the 18th time tomorrow and Sunday at Poly-Western. An estimated 1,500 boys and girls from Atlanta to New York will compete in a meet named for one of Durant's first success stories.
Cliff Wiley, now an attorney in private practice in Kansas, went from Ed Waters and Douglass High to earning a spot in the 1980 Olympics. The Rev. Keith Brown was a premier sprinter for Ed Waters in the mid-1970s. He lives in Howard County, but his daughter runs for Ed Waters.
A generation after the heyday of Brown and Wiley, Durant's organization provided a platform for Bernard Williams and James Carter, who won a gold medal and finished fourth, respectively, at the 2000 Olympics. The reigning national champion in the 100, Williams could gain the unofficial title of "World's Fastest Human" at the world championships next month in Paris.
"He was always elated, but never surprised, when someone from the club did something big," said Ramon Durant, one of his twin sons. "During the 2000 Olympics, he said: `Under that USA uniform, they should have an Ed Waters T-shirt, Remember where it all started.' "
A multi-sport athlete at Carver High, Durant had his destiny already determined by the time he went to Morgan State. He had already been put to work by the man who ran the Easterwood Recreation Center, and he acknowledged the direction of Ed Waters by making the club his namesake.
Durant ran Ed Waters as if it were 1963, not 2003. There were clashes with his own coaches, and athletes faced the specter of corporal punishment. The "Board of Education," a paddle painted black and gold in the colors of the city flag, like all Ed Waters items, went along as the club competed all over the country.
"He was using that before I was born," said Ramon Durant, 21, who works in the payroll department at UMBC and is an Ed Waters assistant coach. "He was a disciplinarian, an authority figure in an environment where that is too often lacking. I look at people my age standing on the corner, doing who knows what. Too many guys my age in the city didn't know their father. My dad was not perfect, but he was a man who took care of his family and his team."
Durant had a love-hate relationship with organizing a track and field meet, which requires the logistics of feeding and transporting an army. He knew which box held the starter's pistol and where to place tents and water coolers, but paperwork fell to associates like Mary Haynes, a rec and parks department employee who learned that Durant did not work 9 to 5.
"You don't know how many times we dropped off entry forms at 2 a.m. down at the main post office in order to hit a deadline," Haynes said. "Then we would realize we hadn't eaten all day."
A smoker, Durant received a diagnosis of cancer last summer. He was routinely late for chemotherapy treatments, but his kids got to meets on time.
Durant expected a similar prioritization from donors and staff, and was unable to take no for an answer. Parents looking for a babysitting service were given chores, and the area's premier high school coaches were badgered to join his staff.
Jerry Molyneaux, who coaches the Western girls during the school year, is in his 20th year with Ed Waters. Mervo's Freddie Hendricks and Archbishop Curley's Gene Hoffman also got on board, the latter in the late 1980s, when he finally showed at Douglass on a 104-degree day and found 100 kids warming up.
"If they're that dedicated ... " Hoffman thought.
That scene was replayed Wednesday night, across Gwynns Falls Parkway from Mondawmin Mall. Older boys ran dozens of sprints up a hill. The older girls were on the track for hard interval work. Molyneaux ran a stopwatch and displayed the proper use of elbows on a turn.
The Edward L. Waters Track and Field Alliance Club qualified a record 105 boys and girls for the national age-group championships in Detroit next weekend. Some, like Ohio State-bound Latosha Wallace, a 54-second quarter miler, have earned college scholarships. All are better having been touched by Ralph Durant.
A week after his death and three days before Father's Day, his life was celebrated at the First Apostolic Faith Church of Christ, on the east side. More than a dozen testimonials were heard and proclamations were read, but nine words from a lifelong friend sufficiently described Durant's legacy.
"We can use," Dr. Henry Gregory said, "about 10,000 Ralphs here in Baltimore."