Jim Grelle, Oregon track

Members of the 1959 Oregon track team, including (front row) Phil Knight, second from left, and Jim Grelle, far right. The runners are posing with former Duck Mack Robinson (center, top row), brother of Jackie Robinson.

We, Hunt Holsapple and Neil Branson, along with countless others, plus the world of track and field, have lost a friend and legend.

Jim Grelle, at age 83, passed on June 13 with his family by his side. We want to recollect some memories of Jim. Hunt will share his very long friendship. Neil will do so from a rather brief, in comparison to Hunt’s, coaching and friend perspective.

Holsapple: I first met Jim Grelle when he came down to Berkeley with Phil Knight, the Nike Boys, and Jim Bartko to the 2010 Pac-10 track and field championships.

We were hosting the meet at the University of California. Jim Bartko asked me to come to dinner with them in Lafayette, and they had just won another Pac-10 title. I mentioned that I knew of Jim Grelle. Phil asked how I meet Jim. I said he went to Ainsworth Grade School, Lincoln High School and the University of Oregon, same as me. It was my first meeting of Jim Grelle.

I retired from California and moved to Gearhart. Jim and Jean were living in Gearhart and the three of us became close friends. Jim always had been about other people, not himself.

He had so many stories and he would tell them all to people around him. His stories about Wilma Rudolph, Cassius Clay (as Muhammed Ali) in Rome for the 1960 Olympics are priceless. Jean tells the story of Grimstad, Norway at the 1962 World Games. She shared, “we stayed at a charming little hotel, a bed and breakfast. A beach festival was on at the same time. We shared the dining room and one floor and the bathroom with some British boys.”

“Long-haired. Weird-looking,” says Jim. “Nice boys. Fun to hear them talk,” Jean says. “At breakfast they discovered our guys were runners, from the United States. Turns out these boys knew all of our men by name. Track groupies, they were. They rushed our table all excited and got signatures in their autograph books.”

“When they walked out,” says Jim, “I asked the waiter, who are those boys? Waiter replies 'A new band at the beach festival. They’re good. Go see them.' Asked the name of the group, he says 'The Rolling Stones.' It was their first trip out of England. The singer said he ran all the time. He was a distance runner. Mick Jagger.'”

I went up to Portland the week before he passed away. He had another story. That's Jim. Always about other people. I am so sorry he's gone but his stories will live on.

Branson: Because I am shaky on remembering dates, we will say it was a bit more than a decade ago that Mr. Gene Gilbertson, my friend and mentor at Seaside High, came to me and asked if I would like to have a really accomplished runner, Jim Grelle, come by practice to talk with athletes. Gene began telling of Jim and I said, “I know who he is and part of his story.”

I was a high school track athlete who spent three-and-a-half of my high school years in the Eugene area with my final year in the city. If a person had any interest in track, and I had plenty, then the “Men of Oregon,” of which Jim was a member, was something you experienced.

A few days later Gene comes to practice with the lanky fellow in tow. I had not seen Jim since I watched him race in the early '60s, and yet there was no mistaking that this was Mr. Jim Grelle. His walk marked him. After brief introductions and some longer stories — Jim was a gifted story teller — I called the 20 or so distance runners together. As I introduced the students individually, Jim was quick with a handshake and a smile.

When the runners returned to their training, Jim asked about kids. His questions were not about times and performances, but about their approach toward running and their unique personalities.

(Myself, I am going to tap into this fellow for all his knowledge and have him help me with workouts, running technique and race plans.)

It got to be quite a tango as Jim was content to talk to kids, sharing tales with them and every now and then addressing the art of running. He would walk alongside of a runner and have conversations. Sometimes he would address three or four at a time and spin a yarn.

There was consistently an air of humor that resulted in letting the kids know they were valuable. While Jim and the athletes are having a grand time, I am trying to squeeze him to help me develop workouts and race strategies. This was not because I lacked confidence in my coaching. But here was a man who set American records, ran multiple sub-four minute miles, competed in the Olympics and coached University of Portland runners.

He surely had much to offer. I should have, and did, feel good when he, after some flat out requests for ideas would say, “No, Neil, you are doing just fine. You might talk to Sally about her arms, but just keep doing what you are doing.”

Such was the man. He did not want to interfere, gave compliments in such an earnest and endearing way, told stories of victory and narrow loss with equal enthusiasm and gave all those with whom he came in contact reason to feel good about themselves.

The memory of his competitive spirit, warmth and humanity will never leave me and countless others.

Jim the Legend, in a capsule, as to record all his accomplishments would take pages. Mr. Grelle was the fourth American to break four minutes in the mile. He had more sub-four miles to his credit until a decade after he retired. In 1965 he broke the American record for the outdoor mile clocking three minutes, 55.4 seconds. In 1961 he posted a 4:03.6 for the indoor mile record.

He was an Olympian, running the 1,500 meters in the 1960 Rome Olympics. Jim would share stories about races, and while they were replete with humor it was easy to see this man was a competitor to the core. He wanted to, and did, race against the best in any given arena. One true mark of Jim’s greatness was his willingness to help other runners even as he fought fiercely to defeat them on the track.

We were both honored to call Jim a friend. His mark on us in indelible.

— Neil Branson is a former track and cross country coach at Seaside High School; Gearhart resident Hunt Holsapple worked for the athletic department at the University of Oregon, and serves as a volunteer at local golf tournaments and cross country meets.

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