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Thursday, June 24, 2004 06:47 am

When they were kings

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The 1909 championship Springfield High School track team. Standing (left to right): Joe Smith, Capt. Wilbur Bohnhorst, Russ McCullough, student manager Jack Frost, unidentified but probably Carl Ihlenfeldt, Clyde Donaldon; seated (left to right): uniden
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ABRAHAM LINCOLN PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY

It is, at first, a vexing and somewhat daunting undertaking to write about a nearly 100-year-old high-school athletic-team yearbook picture, especially when it requires more than a little sleuthing to merely put names to the faces. It is, for the writer, a revelatory experience, for the resultant effect of a little curious investigation is that the truism "a picture is worth 1,000 words" loses its triteness and bears new and genuine meaning. Behold the 1909 Springfield High School track team, pictured here in the full flower of their youth and full splendor of their athletic glory, bearing proudly the spoils of their hard-won athletic accomplishments of that shining season so many years ago. The pennants, on standards in the rear and athwart the low table in the foreground, and the silver trophy cup that they surround possessively are testaments to their hard work, sacrifice, and tenacity -- and yet exist to proclaim, by proxy, for all time: "We are state champions!"

The undisputed team leader, fair-haired boy and everybody's All-American was captain Wilbur "Pete" Bohnhorst, a quarter-miler who also anchored the relay team that won the state championship at the Inter-Scholastic meet in Champaign before 6,000 spectators. Bohnhorst, a senior, had begun laying the groundwork for a successful campaign well before the season began. In the student news magazine, the Capitoline, he urged all those interested in joining the team to begin working out at the new YMCA gymnasium, then located on the site of what is now the annex building of the First Presbyterian Church. He also suggested these do's and don'ts for all team candidates:

Don'ts: 1.Don't use tobacco. 2. Don't "booze." 3. Don't overeat. 4. Don't stint yourself. 5. Don't eat pastries, spicy foods, or fats. 6. Don't dissipate in any way. 7. Don't keep irregular hours. 8. Don't lose too much sleep. 9. Don't get discouraged. 10. Don't fail in your studies. 11. Don't fail to come out for the team.

Do's: 1. Keep up in your studies. 2. Get into good physical condition. 3. Train regularly. 4. Eat plenty of fruit, especially figs and dates. 5. Come out for the team.

A field day -- a competition among the freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior classes that served to fix the team roster -- was held at the State Fairgrounds. In the race to determine the relay team, Bohnhorst was the winner, followed closely by Joe Smith, Ross Locke, and Russell McCullough. Thus was the state-championship team born. Among the others distinguishing themselves that day was diminutive freshman Carl Becker, who won every bicycle race. (Although I don't have definitive proof, I believe him to be the seated boy, second from right, looking every bit the prima donna in woolen-knit turtleneck top and matching shorts -- a dead-giveaway bike outfit circa 1909.) In one meet, the race between Captain Bohnhorst and Hoff of Havana (Hoff's first name wasn't reported) was judged a tie. It was settled with a coin toss by the judges, and Hoff was declared the winner.

The season's crowning achievement came at Champaign. More than 150 schools sent 549 students, representing the cream of the prep athletic crop, to vie for honors at the University of Illinois track. The Capitoline reported, "Joe Smith started the trophy cup on its journey to our high school by winning the first lap, giving Pete a neat little two-yards lead on his opponents. Our fleet-footed captain ran so that it made the blood of the Springfield followers leap through their veins when he came past the bleachers a winner. . . . This is the first time that the relay race has been won by a school outside of Chicago, and local rooters who accompanied the team on the trip were proud to say that they were from Springfield during the remainder of their stay in the college town."

According to Bohnhorst's daughter, Alice Blumof Pasadena, Calif., Bohnhorst married his high-school sweetheart, Grace Elkin, and Blum and her two brothers were born here in Springfield. Blum says her father spent the 1910s and 1920s in Springfield, selling insurance and playing the violin in musical groups and also in the First Christian Church, where he and his wife were members. After hard times and the collapse of Pete's insurance company, the family headed for California in the 1930s, where, sadly, Grace died two years after their arrival. Bohnhorst never remarried.

"He was a hard worker, and he dedicated all his time and energy to raising his family," Blum says. "He was a wonderful wit, a beautiful person. Such a fine man."

Bohnhorst worked for the YMCA for 33 years and died in 1977 at the age of 87.

Blum says that her father always remained health-conscious, with but one exception.

"After he moved out here, he would send back to Springfield for cases of chili from the Dew Chili Parlor. He couldn't get enough of it."

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