I first saw Dick Buerkle run when he was entered in the three-mile at the 1969 NCAA Championships in Knoxville, TN. A former walk-on, who had earned his scholarship by his junior year at Villanova University, he was knocked down and was not able to finish the race. I can still see him on the infield of the University of Tennessee’s Tom Black track. I wondered how injured he was that he couldn’t get back into the race.
The next time I saw him in person was over three years later in Gainesville, FL, when I moved there to train with the Florida Track Club and pursue my running dreams. Dick, who was officially affiliated with the NYAC, was one of the first to embrace my arrival and we soon became morning training partners. I can vividly remember his knock on my door at 6:15 am to join him in a trip around the outskirts of the University of Florida campus—especially areas dedicated to the Veterinary College, which had cows grazing and a very unpleasant odor.
I remember those sixty-minute morning runs at sub six-minute pace that Dick always counted as only 6-7 miles. He didn’t want his competition to know his actual mileage volume.
I remember accompanying Dick on Sunday morning long runs and him disavowing that Barry Brown’s 20-miler was actually 20 miles. I remember he and his wife Jean inviting me over for homemade pizza or a yummy casserole, such a welcomed gesture toward another financially struggling young runner. I remember going out for ice cream as a major treat at the end of another 100-plus miles week of training. I remember going out for Friday night pizza with the Buerkles and a group, including his Villanova teammate Marty Liquori.
I remember running through the roads in Pine Mountain, GA, while there for a cross country meet at Callaway Gardens. Dick’s head was bald due his case of alopecia and my hair was long and hanging past my shoulders. When attempting to purchase some groceries to make our dinner, the clerk gave us a discerning look to which Dick responded, “What you looking at?” The clerk had probably never seen a duo with such completely opposite hairstyles—especially in running apparel.
After Barry Brown broke four-minutes in the mile for his first time in a Twilight meet at the Gators' track, I told Dick about it on our run the next day. He responded, "Then I can break four, too," even though his best effort was in the 4:05 range. So a couple of weeks later, with steeplechaser Dennis Bayham pacing him for a couple of laps, Dick ran 3:58.0.
I remember introducing Dick to the adidas promo rep, who was in Gainesville for the USA Junior Championships, and Dick getting his first pair of “free” shoes.
One of my funniest memories was when Dick and I were painting houses in Gainesville to earn some money to offset our living expenses. Not a patient painter, Dick attempted to move the ladder without removing the gallon can of paint from its perch at the top of the ladder. I watched as gravity did its job and the paint tumbled down, hitting a few rungs and splattering green paint everywhere below. Dick’s hairless head accepted a goodly amount of the green solvent. In a hurry to get to the afternoon practice with the other Florida Track Club runners, we cleaned up the mess, but Dick didn’t wash his head. Upon joining our fellow runners at the track, there was a great amount of laughter when Dick appeared. “He looked like a green Martian,” was a memorable comment.
I remember when Dick broke the indoor world record for the mile, after moving back to cold and icy Rochester, NY. He was tough. How could I have wondered about why he didn’t get back up and finish that NCAA 3-mile in Knoxville?
I remember Dick’s brief broadcasting career when he had his own radio show. He also commentated on various road races.
I remember the joy of our families meeting (now with offspring) at the 2008 USA Olympic Trials in Eugene. It would become an all too brief tradition. Four years later at the 2012 Trials, my son, I, and Dick were just about to find our respective seats for the day’s event when I was randomly interviewed by a local TV reporter. When asked if I was sad that Galen Rupp had broken Pre’s long-standing 5,000-meter record earlier in the meet, I responded that I thought it was great. The reporter looked surprised and astonished and informed me that Pre had never been beaten by an American. I proudly responded that Pre had lost to my friend and he was standing right here next to me. Although somewhat embarrassed, Dick rose to the occasion (as he always did) and was interviewed by the reporter.
I remember a week or so before the 2016 USA Olympic Trials, Marty told me that Dick would not be able to travel to Eugene this time due his progressing Parkinson’s disease. I was saddened that we wouldn’t reunite there again. But while my wife and I were running on the Amazon Trail one morning during the first days of the Trials, a man on the side of the trail called out to us. My wife responded that it was Dick. I countered that it couldn’t be, but to my surprise it was. Luckily, his son Gabe had brought him back to Eugene. We got together for breakfast with Marty, Gene McCarthy, Coach Roy Benson, Jeff Howser, Bobby Gordon, Gabe and a few others and reminisced about our days in Gainesville and other running exploits.
Sadly, that was the last time I saw my friend Dick Buerkle. My college teammate and long-time friend Lee Fidler called to inform me of his passing this morning.
Richard Buerkle. You are missed already.
Mike Caldwell is the Director and one of the coaches for ASICS Greenville Track Club-ELITE. For more on Mike please visit his page on this website.