June 26, 2012
BELLINGHAM, Wash. - In the spring of 1966, John Hunt leaped 24-feet, 3/4-inches in the men's long jump to place second at the NAIA National Track & Field Championships.
The mark was a school record that remains today, the oldest in Western Washington University history.
"That blows me away ... I can't believe it," said Hunt, 66 and retired following a 30-plus year career as a high school teacher, coach and administrator.
"I was pretty good. I won three conference and district titles, but I wasn't head and shoulders over everybody at that time, with All-Americans like Joe Peyton at Puget Sound and Les Rucker at Pacific Lutheran, even on my own team ... Now, I'm kind of hoping that it will last for 50 years."
The closest any Viking has come was this spring when Shane Gruger went 23-8, nearly five inches short of the standard.
Hunt, a graduate of Mount Tahoma High School in Tacoma, set the record 46 years ago as a sophomore at then Western Washington State College.
Hunt traveled to the national meet at Sioux Falls, S.D., with another Western sophomore, javelin thrower Dave VanderGriend. Results were not easily accessible in those days and no one know how the pair had done until they returned home.
"They sent us by ourselves," Hunt recalled. "Coach (Stan) LeProtti wasn't able to go. We were just two 19-year-old bumpkins, neither one of us had ever flown before, and we just pulled into Sioux Falls. We went to meet headquarters and picked up our packets. Dave placed fourth and I was second. When we returned, Dr. (Bill) Tomaras (Western Director of Athletics) picked us up at the airport and he was blown away that we'd placed."
Hunt's record-breaking jump came on his last attempt.
"Dickie Gray from Oklahoma Christian won at 24-11 1/4," said Hunt. "All the rest of us were in this clump. On my last jump, I went from sixth to second. I was excited that it was over 24 feet because I had never jumped that far, but then it dawned on me that I was in second place."
"At that time, the NAIA was much different. Because of segregation, most of the top black athletes attended NAIA schools in the south. Competing at that meet were Olympians Willie Davenport and Jim Hines. We were in awe."
That summer, Hunt jumped a personal-best 24-9 3/4 while competing for the Tacoma Track & Field Club. The following year at nationals, he suffered a lower lumbar compression fracture.
As a senior, Hunt scratched on a jump of 24-8 1/2 at Bellingham's Civic Stadium.
"On of best buddies at Western, Steve Kearby, was the long jump judge that day and he disallowed it. I'd always had a problem with scratches."
Hunt came to Western from Mount Tahoma High School. He received a scholarship offer from Washington State after setting a school record of 21-5 1/4 there as a senior, but "I went to state and had a horrible meet, so they kind of rescinded that offer."
Hunt opted for Western only to discover that high school rival Dick Prefrement was also coming to the Bellingham school.
"When we were juniors in high school and we were doing the AAU circuit in the summertime, Perfrement beat me in the long jump in every single meet - 15 in a row. So when I showed up at Western and here's Dick, I thought `Oh crap.'"
As a freshman, Hunt competed in the pole vault, long jump, high jump and relays.
The Western standard in the long jump was broken that year, but not by Hunt. Perfrement went 23-5 1/2, a mark that still ranks third on the school's all-time list.
"That first year I did anything and everything," Hunt said. "But I was able to catch him (Prefrement) as a sophomore.
A big factor in Hunt's progress was a conditioning class he took as a freshman from Western track coach and nationally known physical education teacher Stan LeProtti. It was based on what became a nationally recognized program he developed at LaSierra (Calif.) High School.
"I learned an awful lot about motivation and hard work and I got in great shape," said Hunt. "It was really beneficial and I attribute it all to him and his program."
A WWU Athletics Hall of Fame inductee in 1987, Hunt termed himself a "rebel without a clue" during his time at Western.
"I was just a Tacoma city kid who grew up a lot and learned a lot. I remember taking 20 books to my first Humanities class and feeling so dumb when I found out that you really didn't need to take all your books to a lecture class."
Following his junior year, Hunt married his high school sweetheart, the former Marsha Smathers (Budget Director for the Bethel School District), who also attended Western. They lived in married student's housing located in what previously had been St. Joseph's Hospital.
"We had the most incredible room on the fifth floor, beautiful sunsets, but it had been an operating room. It had tile walls and stainless steel cabinets, but it was a great apartment. We loved it."
When a social studies teaching job at Meridian High School didn't pan out following graduation from Western, Hunt worked a couple months in construction before receiving a call from then Western track coach Boyde Long asking him if he would be interested in a teaching and coaching position that had opened at Kelso High School.
Hunt taught U.S. history and coached for 20 years at Kelso, helping the Highlanders to a state championship as head track coach and another as an assistant football coach. He then went into administration for 10 years, beginning at Kelso, followed by principal positions at Toutle High School and Rogers High School in Puyallup. Hunt retired, but returned for three more years as principal at Puyallup and Federal Way high schools.
One of the things Hunt talked about in his classroom was the protest of the Vietnam War by Western anthropology professor Howard Harris.
"Those were crazy times," said Hunt, "and we didn't know if we should protest the war or not. Professor Harris would stand in front of the Federal Building in downtown Bellingham with a sign protesting the war every Friday for an hour. By the time we graduated, there were hundreds down there with him. That moved me quite a bit and showed me what a person can do if he has a cause and guts enough to stick with it."
Now Hunt plays golf, builds furniture in the carpentry shop he put together at his home, and plays with his four grandchildren.
"Between Western and my wife and her guidance, that really kind of molded what my life was going to be," Hunt said.
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