I stared for minutes this week at the genesis of the Relays.
The splintered piece of wood, less than a foot long, was framed and mounted on a wall of Bob Stewart's wine cellar. Scrawled on the wood was a signature: C. Warmerdam.
If you're a fan of track and field, you're allowed to grow goosebumps.
On May 23, 1942, a cool night at Modesto Junior College Stadium, Cornelius "Dutch" Warmerdam kicked off the inaugural "Northern California Relays" with a pole vault for the ages.
Warmerdam, already a star in the sport, further sealed his legacy with a world-record vault of 15 feet, 8 inches. What happened after that depends on newspaper accounts and time-fogged memories.
A vault attendant, anxious to shake Warmerdam's hand, struck the standard with his arm and knocked off the bar. Kids having a good time on the field descended into the sawdust pit and promptly tore the wooden bar — the bar Warmerdam just cleared — to bits. Excited fans flooded the field to celebrate. When officials remeasured, they recorded 15-7¾, and so ended the first Biggest Little Meet In The World.
Stewart, 77, has missed only three Relays since 1948. He competed for Stan Pavko's first track team at MJC and for San Jose State in 1952, placed fifth in the 3,000-meter walk at the nationals. He admires track and field athletes but, more important, he's passionate about Modesto's premier sports event.
There, in his wine cellar, he proudly displays one of the most famous relics in Relays history. Today, two days before the 67th California Invitational Relays, he wants to share Warmerdam's splintered bar with the world.
"Why should I keep something like that to myself?" Stewart asked this week.
Stewart contacted Fresno State officials (Warmerdam, who died in 1991, coached at Fresno State), who showed no interest. But the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, based in New York City, may accept the old souvenir.
"If they want it, I'll loan it to them permanently," Stewart said. "I show it to eight or nine people a year, and I really have no more use for it. I'm told more than 400,000 people a year walk through that Hall of Fame. Why not let everyone see it?"
Have we absorbed enough misery about gangs, foreclosures, through-the-roof fuel prices and the failing economy? Here's a Modesto man putting everyone ahead of himself for the enlightenment of all. What's better than that?
Wait. It gets better. Stewart isn't even the original owner of Warmerdam's bar.
John Cadrett, 80, was 11 when he rode his bicycle to the 1942 Relays. Yes, he was one of those kids frolicking on the infield grass when Warmerdam jumped into history. And yes, he claimed one of the prized splinters.
Cadrett kept it, rolled up in the official Relays program, for many years. Then he remembered Stewart, a childhood friend.
"We had known each other but had not seen each other in a long time. I knew Bob would enjoy it, so I called him about eight years ago," Cadrett said. "I told him, 'If I don't do something with that thing, it'll end up in the fireplace.' I guess that's why I didn't throw it away. Bob was so excited."
Again, a kind thought won the day.
Come Saturday, Stewart will check in athletes and coaches at MJC Gym, his Relays duty for decades. If you ask him, he'll pull out his "Modesto JayCees" shirt, another Relays artifact. He frets about the meet's future but takes satisfaction in the fact the Relays remain the nation's third longest-running trackfest. He's a survivor, much like the event he loves.
Stewart has seen it all: 32 world records, Carl Lewis, Ralph Boston, Evelyn Ashford, Bob Hayes, John Carlos, Brian Oldfield, Edwin Moses, Renaldo Nehemiah, Al Oerter, Florence Griffith-Joyner, Wilma Rudolph, Peter Snell, Jim Ryun, Stacy Dragila and Toby Stevenson. He holds a good excuse for one of his missed Relays — his wedding day.
He smiles when he talks about his upcoming trip this summer to the Big Apple where, with friends at his side, he bestows to the Hall of Fame his piece of wood.
Why? Because it's a Modesto thing to do.
Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2302.