Remembering Browning

BY JACK HEATH

Browning Ross is known as the “Father of Long-Distance Running” in America. He was one of the best runners in the country for close to two decades. Browning was a two-time Olympian and a Pan Am gold-medal winner in the 1500 meters.

Browning Ross started the Road Runners Club of America in 1958, and he also founded the first national long-distance running magazine, the Long Distance Log. He coached hundreds of runners in high school (Gloucester Catholic and Woodrow Wilson High Schools) and college (Rutgers) and managed the first US World Cross-Country teams. He influenced thousands of other runners. Browning was a long-time track official, and of course he put on thousands of road races and track meets in his career. But more importantly, to those who knew and loved him best he was just “Dad” or Browning or Coach Ross. His passing in 1998 left a void in the lives of those who knew him that can never be filled. Some of those who knew him best took time to reflect on the man they knew and miss so much.

Harry Berkowitz (coached by Browning)

I met Browning in 1956 while he was teaching history at Woodrow Wilson HS in Camden. He coached me in track and cross-country until I graduated in 1958. Browning always treated me as a friend. I was at his house several times during those years. Browning, Kenny Lovell--a high school teammate, Tom Osler, and I traveled to races together. In February 1958, Browning took Tom and me to New York City for the first national organizational meeting for the RRCA.

Many times, I would be running a race and Browning would drive up and ask me if I needed any coaching. Then he would laugh and drive off. He would show up at the 6 Day Races at the Cooper River and ask the same question. Browning wanted to give runners the opportunity to participate in events that would not be available in other places. The races were set up for the runners. That was his aim when he started the Road Runners Club in 1958.

Bonnie Ross (one of Browning’s three children [son Barry and daughter Barbara])

Mom and Dad loved the beach and we got to spend summers in Cape May when we were young. Dad worked for the Railroad and would ride the train back and forth from Philly to Cape May. I believe that Dad’s favorite runs were on the beach. He would say “OK, I’m going to run to Sea Isle,” (from Cape May) and then he would dive in the ocean when he got back.

Browning put on a five-mile race in Avalon, NJ for over 25 years. In the eighties Browning was setting up the race finish line on the beach when the Avalon police stopped and asked him for a permit and fees. They briefly took him (and me) to the Avalon police station stressing that future races would need a permit. We made it back in time for the race but Browning decided that would be the last year for the race. I have fond memories of running the course with him and jumping in the ocean before the race each year.--Jack Heath

Bob Romansky (started running with Browning in the sixties and became a close friend)

Years ago, Browning worked in the Carneys Point YMCA as the physical education director. One of the day trips that he took was to Don Bragg’s Green Acres camp near Batsto. The bus driver was Max Weeks. Browning and Max took the kids to Don’s camp by a long, circuitous route involving a lot of extra mileage, or so Browning thought...Upon completion of competition between the YMCA kids and Don’s campers, Browning came up with a new plan: “Max, I know a way through the woods on the sand roads that will save us a lot of time going back home. I can take you on these back roads and we’ll end up within sight of the Batsto Historical area.” “Sounds good,” replied Max.

So off they went, driving the big bus with thirty kids along the narrow, winding sand roads, the bus banging against the low-hanging branches of the trees lining the road. Finally, just as Browning had said, they came within sight of Batsto. However, there was one minor problem...There was a chain-link fence stretched across the road!!! Browning never missed a beat. “OK Max, I’ve got us this far, you can take over now!” It’s a true story.

Tom Osler (Running author and friend of Browning for over 50 years)

I started running in 1954, and I met Browning at the National AAU 30K Championship on the Atlantic City boardwalk. I later found a picture of myself at the finish line watching as Browning won the race. Browning will be my hero, coach, and mentor for my entire life. No other man except my own father had so much influence on so many aspects of my life. When he nominated me for the Gloucester County Hall of Fame it was his last gift to me after a lifetime of giving.

Browning’s memory lives on in those who were fortunate enough to know him personally. He was the first runner I ever met, and no other runner has influenced me more. He was a mentor and a friend whom I miss dearly. Part of him became part of me, and I am the better for it.

Tom got to see Browning still running at a high level in the fifties--“There was a three-mile course in Farnham Park in Camden that was used frequently. Browning came to the Park one day to do a workout. He ran one three-mile loop of the course under the course record by himself as a workout. He then proceeded to do a second loop also under the course record. It was amazing to witness this.

Jane Hoopes (Met Browning in the ’70s through running in his races and was inspired to start her own Running Store and Race Timing Company [Athletes Korner Sports Timing Systems] because of him)

One piece of instruction I remember Browning telling me was not to take too long to run because he wanted to get home in time for dinner! It was Browning who encouraged Gene (husband) and I to get involved in race timing--and he would recommend our company--Athlete’s Korner Sports Timing Systems--to race directors looking for clocks and equipment. He would often help out himself, volunteering at races by helping pull tags or doing results. Our Thanksgiving Turkey Trot was inspired by Browning. We, in turn, helped Browning out with his summer running camps in Medford for several years. Many athletes who attended his camps are still fine runners today. One thing that really impressed us was that no matter how many months went by between the time we saw each other, Browning was always happy to see us. No matter what the circumstance, we could always catch up on family, friends, life, etc. I remember a runner questioning him about a course he said was TAC certified. “TAC means Trust A Coach,” he said with a laugh. He mentioned to the runner that the runners in front of you would have still been in front of you whether the course was certified or not. Browning possessed the gift of unconditional love.

Chet Dirkes (Track Official)

I loved officiating with Browning. He was unflappable and always in a good mood. One time we were timing a freshman championship mile race together and he told me, “You get first and I’ll get the other ten places. I’ve got a new watch that can get 100 splits.” After the gun fired to start the last lap I heard him say, “Oh shoot, my watch stopped!” Without hesitating he proceeded to line up each kid as he finished and give him a time. The times must have been really close to what they ran because no one complained! Cool under pressure!

Mark Kordich (Accu-run Timing Systems finish-line expert, and long-time friend

I remember meeting at Sports East in Woodbury (NJ) every Friday night to talk with Browning and a small group--Jack and some others. We would drink a Coke or a coffee and talk about anything that came to mind. I really looked forward to it every week. If I could relive any moments of my life it would be those Friday nights and the conversation at Sports East with Browning.

Jerry Nolan (long-time friend)

When I first started running in road races about thirty years ago, I didn’t know much about the sport. That deficiency was corrected when I went to my first Browning Ross race and met people who were, in effect, pioneers of the sport of long-distance running. There was much to be learned from Ross and the other runners and that was done mostly by looking and listening. I rarely missed any of the Ross Races (5Ks, 10Ks, and 10 milers) in the ensuing years.

My interest in LDR went beyond just the actual running in races. With Ross’s encouragement, I also became involved with the Road Runners Club of America. These two activities are significant. As for writing about LDR, Ross was way ahead of his time, with the Long Distance Log, publishing that item for many years. The connection with RRCA is that Ross founded that organization. He hasn’t been given proper credit for these accomplishments, perhaps partly because of his distaste for the spotlight.

Over the years, Ross created many races. When he died in 1998, what he offered to runners was a winter and summer series of 5Ks, a winter and summer 10 miler, and an occasional 10K. For the most part, all of these races are still in existence, thanks to his long-time friends. As time went on, I also learned that many of the races in existence in Gloucester County and lower Camden County had the Browning Ross fingerprint on them because of his involvement in the creation of that race. Finally, races exist today which are memorials to Ross. The Ross/Kupcha 5K is a tribute not only to Ross but also to Bob Kuphca, who was one of Ross’s track athletes at Gloucester Catholic High School. Jack Heath, who is the race director for that race, was once a runner for Ross, and later an assistant coach under Ross. Jack succeeded Ross as coach at Gloucester Catholic when Ross died.

Another example is the Benjamin/Ross 5K held in early June in the Ross hometown--Woodbury, NJ. Ross joined others in Woodbury to create the George Benjamin 5K Memorial. Benjamin, a WWII Medal of Honor winner, was a mentor and friend of Ross. When Ross died in 1998, the race officials changed the name to a memorial to both. Ross did much for LDR when he was alive, and continues to do so even though he is no longer with us.

Jack Heath (ran for Browning in the ’70s and later coached with him)

When you ran for Browning it was always a 100% positive experience--You ran for the right reasons--positive reasons. He never yelled at us. I think to do your best in anything it has to be done for positive reasons. As Harry Berkowitz said, he treated you like a friend from the first time he met you--it’s a great thing for a 14-year-old new to the sport to have a mentor and friend like Browning. He made you laugh every time you saw him and had good advice for you every time you asked.

In college, I remember running a 5000 on the track (for Rowan University) in a Conference Meet and Browning was the official. He cheered and offered me encouragement every time I ran by: “C’mon Jack pull away from these guys on the straightaway! Atta Boy!” I’ll never forget the looks of surprise on the faces of the other runners that the official was pulling for another runner in the race. We knew he was an Olympian and a running pioneer, but what meant the most to us was his friendship and his great sense of humor--he taught us how not to take ourselves too seriously. As a coach, many of his training methods were way ahead of their time. He had discovered them through his own running. Most importantly he showed us that running was fun and a great lifetime sport by his example.

During one Friday night July “meeting” at Sports East, Browning sorts through his mail, mostly catalogs. “Huh! Here’s my Sports Illustrated; guess the mailman is done with it!” he said. Then he turned to ask me if I was running the Whitesbog Blueberry 10K cross-country race the next day, and if I could swing by and pick him up. Despite 90-degree temps, sand, and a six-foot stream that was forded in mid-race, Browning won his age group. I won mine and placed second overall. We both won a flat of Blueberries, an electric pencil sharpener, and some other prizes.

When I pulled up to Browning’s house he said, “Jeez, do you want these blueberries? I didn’t tell anyone I was going to a race. I said I was going out to get a paper!” I said I would have a hard time eating the ones I had so Browning took all his prizes into the house.

While I was coaching cross-country with Browning, I noticed him staring intently at each runner passing by us during a major cross-country meet. I watched and encouraged the kids we were coaching and some of the other kids I knew but didn’t pay as much attention to the other runners in the race as Browning.

After they had all passed by he remarked, “I thought I’d see a lot more Asics. It looked like a lot more Nike than last year…” He was surveying the percentage of different brands of shoes the kids were wearing to get an insight about what to stock in his store.”

Jim Plant, one of Browning’s best runners from Gloucester Catholic in the late ’70s:

This might sound dramatic, but if I hadn’t met Mr. Ross I don’t know if I’d be alive today. I met him at the right time in my life and he gave me focus and encouraged my running. Running has led to a lot of great things in my life including college, where I am living (Boca Raton, Florida), my job (life guard), and my music career (professional musician).

Ed Dodd, Co-Author of the book Ultra Marathon with Tom Osler and a long-time friend of Browning:

The first time I met Browning was at the Cooper River 10 Miler in May of 1962. I was in my second year of high school and the race was my first road race. It consisted of two laps of the river with the Browning Rd. chute and three laps of the track in the beginning and one lap of the track at the end. I was by far the youngest person in the race. I ran around 67 minutes on that hot Sunday afternoon and finished back in the pack. Browning was first, second, or third. At the awards after the race, Browning’s prize was a large trophy. When he got to me, he told everyone that this was my first road race and then handed me his trophy as my award. You can just imagine what a 15-year-old felt like to be handed a huge trophy in his first race by an ex-Olympian.

I remember a race that consisted of five or six rectangular loops in front of Memorial Hall in [Philly’s] Fairmount Park. It was a cold winter day with the wind howling from the west. So, one long at least half-mile-straightaway was run against the wind. Each lap Browning would run right behind me. On the last lap he then proceeded to out-kick me to the finish. After the race, he smiled and said, “You didn’t mind me running behind you against the wind, did you?” And you know what, I didn’t.

Another time I was helping him officiate at a race in the woods someplace. The course was a classic, somewhat-convoluted Browning course. I think it was Herb Lorenz’s first local race. Browning was running in the race, so I was doing the finish line until he finished. The finish was in a dirt parking lot. I saw Herb coming out the woods on a trail in first place. Then several seconds later another runner approached the finish, but from the opposite direction. Then another came out of the woods from a third direction. When Browning came in, I asked how we could tell who finished where. He said to just use the times that they got to me at the line. “They probably all ran about the same distance, anyway,” he said. Several times before races he would ask me if I wanted any advice. When I said “yes,” he would say. “Go out hard. Pick it up in the middle. And sprint at the end.”

I knew Browning for over thirty years and I never saw him angry. I know my parents thought that this running thing couldn’t be so bad with a man such as Browning so deeply involved. Browning and my father, who was just about Browning’s age, were very similar: quiet, reserved, and always willing to go out of their way to offer someone help. I think of the two of them often, almost every day, and try the best I can to emulate them. I can’t think of two finer people. I miss them.

Neil Weygant, finisher of 42 consecutive Boston Marathons:

I first met Browning in the Margate 3-mile Beach Run in June 1964 and was immediately impressed with his obvious love of running, his humility, and his sense of humor. By the fall of 1965 I was a regular at Browning’s Middle Atlantic Road Runners Club races and developed many lifelong friendships from the races. He signed me up for his South Jersey Track Club and told me to tell everyone that I had been with them for several months! That club, composed of an eclectic group of young and older runners would go on to win National Championships and other big races. At the start of the race he would always say, “When the going gets tough, quit!” It was his way of relaxing everyone for the challenge ahead. We were very proud when he was chosen as the US team manager for the US International Meet in the 1960s. I still have the postcard he sent from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

It’s hard to believe but for some races Browning would send out the entry blanks, collect the post-entry fees, start the races, often run and win the race, help time the others, and give out the prizes! Truly amazing, especially in this era of mega-races. (Note: One of Browning’s Long Distance Log magazines from 1958 contains an article on the Road Runners Club he had founded as well as race results from the American record he had recently set in the one-hour run.)

I was honored to sit with Browning, wife Sis, and Jack and Jean Pyrah when they were honored at the 75th Anniversary Villanova Track Banquet in 1997. It was an honor to be there with two icons of our sport and their supportive spouses. Sis should be given a lot of credit for “being there” for Browning as he pursued his love of running. Also, his three children (Bonnie, Barry, and Barb) were there for him behind the scenes. I remember showing up early for the 1998 Glassboro 10 Miler. Browning had been honored the night before in Berwick for his 10 victories at the Run for the Diamonds. They had presented him with a scrapbook and we sat in his car and studied the articles. I also remember how many of his friends gathered at the National Distance Running Hall of Fame in Utica, New York to honor him in 2002. I and many others were fortunate to have had Browning as our coach, mentor, and role model. I know his influence will be with us throughout our lives. He is greatly missed, but his memory lives on to inspire us.

Ted Callinan (one of Browning’s top runners from the ’90s):

I knew Browning from my early days of running. I started running track in fifth grade at my grade school. My older brother, Chris, was running for Gloucester Catholic High School at this point; he was being coached by Jack Heath. When Jack and Chris decided to have Chris try the steeplechase, Jack called on his high school coach (and obviously former Gloucester Catholic coach) Browning Ross. Thus my family began to know Browning who spent his days running his store--Sports East--and officiating high school track and cross-country. While in grade school, I attended many of Browning’s Summer and Winter Series races. When I began my own high school career at Gloucester Catholic, Jack Heath was my coach. But Jack soon returned to school to do graduate work and called in Browning to take the reins back over. That was the beginning of a true friendship between us. I ran alone with Browning many times in the woods near Woodbury’s golf course. (At his age, Browning needed to stay on a soft surface--but he still moved quickly!) There was a fence line between the wooded trails and the golf course. It was somewhat frustrating for me, as Browning would often stop and pick up wayward golf balls to sell in his sports store for $.25 a piece!

I remember that one time on our way to the course, we were listening to a new tape Browning had in his car. It was a tape of Natalie Cole, singing over lyrics from her father’s (Nat King Cole) own song. I liked the tape, particularly a song called “Cottage for Sale.” I asked Browning if I could borrow it to copy it. Afterward, I thought about how unusual, (and good), it was that two people with such an age difference could be such good friends. More so than the coaching and running, I like to think that defined our relationship…especially because no matter how fast I ran (even when I wound up winning the Parochial B State Meet in the 3200), all Browning would say was “Not bad. I just heard about a girl in seventh grade who ran about the same time you did.”

Ken Kling was the top runner in South Jersey in the early 1970s and would often run with Browning who was still an excellent runner in his fifties and sixties:

I remember running along in some woods near the Woodbury area and all of a sudden, Browning picks up the pace as we weave through a narrow path. All of a sudden he comes to a complete stop. He laughs and says, “Ken, you turn around here--this is a dead end!” So we turn around and have to get started again.

We’d be running along in the woods and I’d say to Browning, “I’ll be right there, I have to relieve myself.” He says, “Okay,” and as soon as I pull over to the side, without me knowing it, Browning sprints away as fast as he can. When I am done and see how far away he is I have to sprint all the way to catch up to him. Meanwhile as I catch up, he is giving me his famous laugh.

Browning liked to run next to you and tap you on the back of your opposite shoulder. As a reflex you turn in that direction, and Browning would laugh and say, “You’re very easy to fool!”

I remember running a race at Cooper River and it is a real windy day. We are running on the track side of the loop and at that time we ran in the street. During the real windy section, Browning is running right behind me. I notice that as I move to the right, he moves to the right, as I move to the left, he moves to the left. I finally decide to give him a real test and start zigzagging back and forth. He follows my every move. After the race he says, “Ken, you make quite a windbreaker!”

Larry James, Olympic Gold and Silver medal winner 1968, fellow Villanova Hall of Famer, and Stockton College AD who put on a running camp with Browning for years:

I put on a five-mile race at Stockton (Pomona, NJ) and asked Browning for some help as I had no idea what I was doing. He came down and helped me set everything up. About 10 minutes before the race was to start Browning asked me about the prizes. I mentioned that I had gift certificates to the Smithville Inn for age-group prizes. He said, “Then I’m going to run!” He proceeded to get changed to run the race and I started to panic. Sure enough he ran the race. At the finish, runners were coming in from five different directions and I was going crazy! Browning won his age group and the gift certificate. He always kept that “world-class runner guilt if he wasn’t training” thing even when he got older. He told me he had a three-mile course in his house he would run if the weather got bad. He could have been pulling my leg but I believed him!

Vince Phillips ran Browning’s races for decades and is also one of the deans of Burlington County (NJ) cross-country coaches. Vince gave some insight into how Browning designed one of his many courses:

I came down one Sunday with my younger son, Patrick, to run a “TAC certified” 5K in Fasola Park in Deptford, NJ. Pat and I were the first ones to arrive in the parking lot. Browning showed up about two minutes later. I started to get out of my car but Browning came running over and said, “Do you have one of those trip gauges that you can zero?” I said “yes,” Browning jumped in the back seat behind Pat and said, “Turn around here and zero it, then drive out the entrance.” I complied.

As we exit the park, Browning tells me to turn right, continue straight, and let him know when the trip gauge gets to 1.5 miles. Again, I dutifully follow the Master’s directions. When we get to 1.5 miles, Browning sees a fire hydrant a few yards up the road and declares, “That’s the turnaround.” So much for TAC certified! I really miss him.

Don Bragg, Olympic gold-medalist pole-vaulter (1960) from Villanova:

Browning was the epitome of a long-distance runner. He kept to himself, and was very calming and easygoing and most of all dedicated to what he believed. That dedication brought him to the pinnacle of his career. My friendship with Browning led me to mentoring his son, Barry, whose life I continue to be a part of. Barry carries on his father’s legacy as pastor of a church in South Jersey. Barry’s mannerisms of kindness, giving, and caring were the traits of his father. It was definitely my pleasure to have known and been a friend to Browning.

Browning’s sense of humor is recalled by all of those he touched. A number of runners who ran for Browning in the 1970s recalled when one of his teams started to repeat a ribald pirate-like chant that had been passed on from upper classman during a track warm-up. “Hey! Knock it off!” said Browning. The team quickly fell silent, sorry for having embarrassed their beloved coach. “What do you think you’re doing? That’s not appropriate.” Again, silence. “Besides, I’ve heard better chants than that--like the Norfolk chant. (Norfolk, we don’t drink or smoke, Norfolk!) With that lesson learned, laughter, and the tension diffused. When one of his runners would mention he was going out to dinner that night Browning would ask where and what time so he “could press my nose outside against the window while you are eating.” Browning mentioned that he had struggled through French class while a senior at Woodbury High. He recalled his French teacher mentioning she had passed him with a clean conscience knowing that he would “never, ever have to speak French again.” Within a year Browning sent her a postcard from France where he was stationed during World War II. He loved to recall stories about his Coach Jumbo Elliott who was as curmudgeonly as Browning was pleasant. His favorite story involved one of Browning’s Villanova teammates telling the legendary Elliott he was a lousy coach.” He said, “Jumbo, I didn’t say you were the worst coach in the world, I just said I’ve seen better!” Browning would laugh at the recollection and it was a good lesson in humility for any coach who would take himself too seriously.

Barbara Ross, Browning’s daughter:

He didn’t talk much about his accomplishments at home. To us he was just a great dad. He always had time for us and all of our activities. He was very encouraging. I really miss his sage advice.

Many of the runners who ran for Browning also recall his advice for injuries--“rub peanut butter on it” and how the freshmen runners always had a faint whiff of peanut butter. One runner who ran for Browning in the ’70s recalled: “We thought this was his way of discouraging runners from complaining about every little ache and pain and doing it with a sense of humor. I was surprised to read an article in the newspaper 20 years after high school about an Australian study that claimed peanut butter was a great tonic to facilitate recovery if spread on sore muscles. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I read the article again and cut it out and gave it to him. Browning read the article, smiled, and put it in his pocket: “See, I told you so!” he said.

Browning Ross encouraged and influenced thousands of runners in his lifetime through his kindness, sense of humor, and dedication to the sport he loved so much. The best way to remember him is by following his example and for each of us to give something back to fellow runners and the local running community as he so generously did for all of us.--Jack Heath