Orlis Cox’ national track champions

by Michele Dunlap, daughter of Virgil Sealey

The time you won your town the race

We chaired you through the marketplace;

Man and boy stood cheering by,

And home we brought you shoulder-high.

A. E. Housman, “To An Athlete Dying Young”

from A Shropshire Lad

It is almost 75 years since the four Ottawa high school trackmen ‘won their town the race’ in the 29th annual and last of the Interscholastic meets held in Soldier Field, Chicago on

The 1933 Relay Team

June 16th and 17th of 1933.  All but four of the Ottawa track lads of Coach Orlis Cox had checked in their equipment and uniforms.  These were the three seniors and one junior that went unbeaten in the 1933 Kansas track season 880 relay competition but for a dropped baton at the KU Relays.

Coach Cox in his early thirties and in his sixth year as a coach said, “the school administration thought him all wet to enter and take the four to the National track and field meet.”  Kansas would send 28 athletes from eight different schools.  Arkansas City, 1932’s title winner, would take six boys.

A Topeka, Kansas, news article said, “cold statistics indicate that no Kansas high school will win the Chicago meet this year. East Technical high school of Cleveland, O., has without doubt the greatest individual performer ever know in high school circles. He is a colored boy named Owen (sic) and has already set records of 9.6 sec in the 100-yard dash; 20.8 seconds in the 220-yard dash; and 24 feet. 11 inches in the broad jump.”  Ottawa got one line of press in the Topeka article, “…a good time of 1:31 in winning the half-mile relay at the state meet”.  East Tech of Cleveland beat that time with a 1:30.3 at the Ohio state meet.

The Ottawa Herald was full of articles about the Chicago World’s Fair and the Interscholastic Competitions to be held for several weeks concurrently in June.  But the biggest story of the day in Ottawa was on the front page of the May 29, 1933 Ottawa Herald. Money Is Raised; Orchestra To Go”

benefit concert, contributions and pledges put the fund over the top of the $3,000 needed to send the Ottawa high School orchestra to the Interscholastic National Contest in Chicago. In addition to the 132 members of the orchestra, it is estimated from 125 to 175 other Ottawans went along. The trip occupied four and a half days. Six passenger coaches and a baggage car were  ordered for the orchestra Special.

News of the trip was to be sent back by Lawrence Piper of The Herald staff who would be assisted by Frederick Harris.  At home, competition results would be spread by loud whistles of the Power and Light Company, one blast for first, two for second, etc.  When the news was relayed home, car horns could be heard blasting on Main Street as drivers shouted and waved from their cars and phone lines were filled to capacity as calls were made across town. Ottawa was one of two Orchestra entries to receive a first place standing.

It was anticipated that a big crowd would be at the station to greet the trippers when they returned.   The City Water and Light, Ottawa car shops and Warner plant whistles were to be turned on full blast for five minutes.  Engine whistles in the Ottawa Santa Fe yards would be given full steam and the Legion drum and bugle corps would meet the train at the station.

June 8th The Ottawa Herald in Sports: “Four Ottawa high school athletes under direction of Coach Orlis Cox have gone into the final round of training in preparation for their participation in the national interscholastic track and field meet at Chicago. The boys forming the state championship half-mile relay team are: Virgil Sealey, Charles Young, Clarence Heckroot and Jack Richardson. The team has been working out regular (sic) since school closed.  Young, who made the orchestra trip to Chicago, joined the other boys for a workout yesterday.  The trip to Chicago will be made by automobile.”

The make and model of Orlis Cox’ car is unknown.  But news articles and oral history from one of his lads agreed that Orlis and his wife and the four young men drove to and from the Chicago meet in Orlis Cox’s family car.

June 14th page 12 Ottawa Herald Sports: The Ottawa high school half-mile relay team…left this morning for Chicago.  Coach and Mrs. Orlis Cox accompanied the team.  Their small daughter, Darlene, is staying with her grandparents at Elk City.

June 16th page6 Ottawa Herald Sports: The crack half-mile relay team of the Ottawa high school qualified in the national interscholastic track and field meet yesterday afternoon in Chicago. The East Tech team of Cleveland, O., had the best time of the qualifying heats. Its time was 1:30.5, only .5 of a second better than Ottawa’s fastest time, so Ottawa has a fair chance of winning the race.  The finals are to be held this afternoon.”

Chicago, (AP) June 17 “The prep meet yesterday verified the suspicion that Jesse Owens…already is good enough to worry the best of the college dash men. Owens won the 100-yard dash in 9.7, two-tenths of a second faster than Marquette University’s Ralph Metcalfe.  Owens also turned in a 22.1 seconds performance in the 220-yard dash and in neither race was he opened up.”

Finally on June 19, 1933 the Ottawa High half-mile relay team makes their hometown front page.

“Coach Orlis Cox’s Ottawa high school dash men took the half-mile relay at the national interscholastic track and field meet Saturday afternoon…with a time of 1:31. The Ottawa boys nosed out East Tech of Cleveland. The Ottawa team gave Richardson, anchorman, a lead that Jesse Owens, star of the meet and Cleveland’s anchorman, could not overtake. Coach Cox sent word today that he would be home with the team some time tomorrow morning. There were 23 half-mile relay teams entered…and Ottawa’s relay team received a trophy symbolical of the national championship and each of the boys was presented with a gold medal.”

June 20 Page one news item The Ottawa Herald: Relay Titlists Home- Ottawa High Half Milers Tired, But Happy at Success. “The Ottawa team beat out East Tech of Cleveland in 1:31, to win the half-mile relay crown of the country… The track at Chicago was not marked into lanes except on the home stretch.  Passing the batons had some of the boys worried, as it was necessary to swing from the pole to their lane to pass the baton and then fight for the pole again.  Charles Young, Ottawa, slipped in the qualifying race, but he regained his feet in time.  Jesse Owens, East Tech star, had the same difficulty in the finals.”

Virgil Sealey told his family years later that the town has blown whistles and church bells had tolled when news of the half-mile relay team reached the town.  Nothing was reported in the Herald to say this was so.  Perhaps there had been some sort of noisy celebration, but it would have gone unheard by the returning trackmen and coach.  Orlis Cox and wife, it was reported, soon joined their daughter and relatives in Elk City for most of the rest of that 1933 summer.

Heckroot and Richardson were found in the following fall school news as part of Ottawa University’s football team and freshmen attending the 1933-34 term at OU.  Richardson was reported with a slight ankle injury while running back a punt.

That same fall, Charles Young had more serious injuries to his back and bruises from a one-fatality accident east of Ottawa on highway 68.  “Guy Z. Price, 56, head of the Price Motor Co., was killed instantly when his car was struck by another car. Young, a passenger in the Price car was employed at the Price garage.

Virgil Sealey’s name was found in the Herald’s June 24, 1933 news.  He was one of three piano accompanists for the Studio of Alice V. Grogan’s second series of piano and violin recitals.  Sealey, the only junior on the relay team, ran another year of track under Coach Cox and graduated the next year from Ottawa High School.  He went on to work with his father at Sealey’s Garage and Buick dealership.

Clarence Heckroot, according to the February 1934 Ottawa Record, remained at OHS through 1934 as a “post graduate.”  He entered Ottawa University that fall and studied there for three years.

In 1984 Rick Peterson, Ottawa Herald sports writer, wrote an introspective on Orlis Cox with emphasis on the 1933 relay team that Owens said of “It was probably the biggest coaching thrill I ever had.”  Cox attributed part of the win to the luck of the draw.  “Ottawa drew lanes 3 and 4 while East Tech drew 1 and 6 which made the first hand off an adventure.”  Coach Cox had switched usual anchorman Heckroot to the number three position hoping to build up a substantial lead that Jesse Owens could not make up. His strategy worked and Richardson “went head–to-head against Owens…Richardson had a good lead and he couldn’t get him. We beat them pretty bad,” Cox said.

Mark Laws, coach of today’s Ottawa High School track team, said early in his coaching career his home was almost next door to retired Coach Cox and he had a chance to meet him and others whom Orlis Cox had coached.  Laws said, “Coach Cox was a special person, who had the trait to inspire in young men a great desire to please their coach.”  Trackmen would go the extra mile and put forth the extra effort in giving the very best that was in them and then dig even deeper, for their coach and team.  Perhaps this was the true lucky draw that resulted in the four young Ottawa lad’s defeat of East Tech of Cleveland and Jesse Owens. They drew Orlis Cox for their coach that June day in 1933.

To-day, the road all runners come,

Shoulder-high we bring you home,

And set you at your threshold down,

Townsman of a stiller town.

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