As the Wisconsin prep track community waits for the current pandemic-induced hybrid “fall” season to run its course and longs to hear the first starting gun of its new, shortened campaign that is slated to start in late April, there are some sad departures to take note of.
Very sad departures of broad shouldered contributors, who reflected the very best the sport had to offer. Athletes, coaches, full-throated backers, who gave much and leave the field sadly mourned and well-remembered.
I knew them all in some respects as a result of my 38 years of community-based sports journalism, some better than others. Only one’s passing you could say was fully expected, the other three were before their time, one tragically, painfully so.
I’d like to talk about a little and thank all four as best I can for helping reinforce and inform my love of this great sport.
Rongstad was a star at Ladysmith High School in the late 1970s, winning the Class B 330-yard low hurdles in 1978, and if that was all he did for the sport, he would still be well remembered.
But that was only the tip of the iceberg of his contributions to the Wisconsin thin-clad nation for the proud Norwegian multi-sport athlete, husband, father, cyclist, salesman, and out and out lover of life who passed away on March 4 at the much too young an age of 61. He will be far better remembered as an impressive on-line and print promotor and advocate of the sport.
More on him in a little bit.
The former Brookfield East and University of Wisconsin star Thompson was killed in late February at the maddeningly young age of 28 as a result of his having a mental health episode where he was living and going to school in Iowa, He broke into a home, got into a fight with the owner and was eventually shot.
Thompson was a star hurdler and relay runner for East’s state championship team in 2011, the lead wave of what would be a tsunami of four WIAA state titles for the Spartans in the next six seasons. He was also smart, was pursuing graduate studies in the medical field and could have been something great said friends, which makes his death all the more wretched.
A few days before Rongstad’s death on March 2, the former Brookfield Central coach Pulkownik died after years of battling various health issues. He was 62. Pulkownik was the coach of the Lancers’ boys teams during a dominant era in the late 1990s and early 2000s. A time where they were led by state 400 champ Jon Doble and a not bad weightman who went on to have what is likely an NFL Hall of Fame career as an offensive lineman, Joe Thomas.
And back in late November, the Milwaukee area meet referee without peer Coutts, who for many years was also a strong and clear voice on the PA at the WIAA state track meet doing his darn best to pronounce correctly almost every name he called out, fired his last starting gun at the age of 83.
I will talk about Thompson, Coutts and Pulkownik more in depth a little later, but I want to make the major focus of this blog, the contributions of Rongstad, who gave me, a slow-footed, altitude-challenged track obsessive, a chance to express my love for one of the greatest sports out there in a far broader fashion than I was used to in my day-to-day work at Community Newspapers in suburban Milwaukee.
In the early 2000s, through the unfortunately now defunct website wisconsintrackandfield.com, Rongstad sought to give a home to Wisconsin prep track junkies like myself, who longed for a catch-all for all-time best times, season results and updates on recent stars now in college. There had been many honor rolls out before this and Dave Figi had started in 1994 and continues to run a great site for state girls track, but as I will explain, for an amazing six years Rongstad gave Wisconsin prep track a dazzling full color, in-depth overview and review worthy of Track and Field News.
He put out word about creating a first of its kind top 50 list for each boys and girls event, calling out to all coaches, athletes and track knuckleheads like myself to comb their dusty scrapbooks to find obscure times and distances that might make the list. I was happy to submit more than a few efforts myself.
The website was a success, a needed go-to resource for community sports reporters like myself and just plain fun to consult and argue about. Then Rongstad got an even better idea, he wanted to create a yearbook chock full of features, highlights from the previous season, a detailed round-up of the previous season’s state meet, updated top 50 lists and even a round-up of the previous fall’s cross country campaign (the often under-appreciated cousin of track).
He worked with publisher Ultramodig LLC and Visual Image Photography in creating it. I was over the moon about the idea and had a bright idea and sent him an e-mail. I told Rongstad I had been a fan of the sport since Carl Lewis was long-jumping in his crib, was at the state meet every year anyway and that I would be happy to write a state meet review that could be inserted into the middle of the yearbook.
Much to my astonishment and absolute delight he said yes. It would be a juggling act each year for me collecting enough quotes at state to meet the requirements of my day job as well as talk to enough out-state superstars to make the story for the yearbook worthwhile to a Wisconsin-wide audience.
It was a success, as the 56-page yearbook came out in mid-summer 2002 with excellent color photos of state male athlete of the year Chris Solinsky of Stevens Point (who obviously would repeat in 2003) and female athlete of the year Melissa Talbot of Freedom on the back. For the next six years, Rongstad would carefully rotate male and female athletes on the front cover and worked hard to improve his product.
He would include an opening essay on the year that was, including trends and top out of season performances. He would include a top 10 list for each event for the given season, and as well as selected updates of collegians. There was also a list of top 10 male and female athletes of the year. I would have occasional quibbles about his choices, but for the most part, Rongstad was spot on in his judgments as they came from a place of knowledge and love of the sport.
Like Rongstad, I sought to make my state meet essay better and better, reaching out across Wisconsin to a wide range of resources. One year, I had fun conversation with long-time Arcadia girls coach Lynn Sonnentag about the rise of her program. I also had fun speaking with the likes of Solinsky, all-time weight greats Gavin Ball of Monona Grove, Hannah Gronnring of Shell Lake (who was also a state champion on a 4 x 100 sprint relay), Steve Marcelle of Green Bay Preble, A.J. Curtis of Brodhead and Sean Pruitt of Valders.
I also incorporated a fair number of coach friends and Milwaukee area stars as I could (I wanted to be objective, but I was not about to exclude the likes of the future NFL Hall of Famer Thomas of Brookfield Central, the brilliant Shorewood distance runner Claire Maduza or the amazing Whitefish Bay 800 runner Steve Markson). Coach pals such as Dan Benson of Homestead, Todd Brawner of Germantown, Jeff Waggoner of Menomonee Falls and Lorie Lewis of Brookfield Central also found their way into the yearly stories.
Mark indulged me every year, even as the story got longer and longer. He reduced the font, tightened the spacing, but rarely cut a word I said. In short, he was a dream to work with.
Every year, along with my enclosed copy of the issue would be a short thank you note and an invitation to do it again next year.
But it became apparent over time, that this was a labor of love for Rongstad. The staffing for the publication never changed and it was clear he was doing the majority of the work himself. I never knew exact reasons why Rongstad closed up shop on the yearbook in 2007 after an amazing six-year run, but I’m sure it had to be from a combination of exhaustion and winnowing finances.
He and I exchanged several e-mails that summer over my final essay for the 2007 issue, which had Watertown middle distance ace Andrew Perkins on the front cover and amazing Belleville-New Glarus distance ace Ashley Beutler on the back. Again, he was working hard to accommodate my increasing length, a true wonder on what had to be a challenging deadline. I am sure I did not help him by being laid low for a couple of weeks by gall bladder surgery.
The e-mails from his end were unfailingly polite and encouraging and I want to share one which an old approval junkie like myself found particularly heartening. It reveals much in my mind about the always positive character I saw in Rongstad.
“Steve, thx. The article is great.
I am inserting photos now and I will send to you once I do for your review.
It is a little bit long to fit in my three page layout. I am presently planning to shrink the font to accommodate, but I want to look at it printed first to make sure it works.
Thanks again. Your article is so good!!”
In retrospect of the realities he had to be facing at the time his response was that of an eternal optimist and of someone who truly appreciated anyone who was willing to help him on this truly special project
Rongstad quietly shut down operations after the 2007 issue. I did not hear from him again and I often wish I had made the effort to do so. Wisconsin track is certainly the less for his loss, but as I read his obit, so is the wider world.
He retired from work in sales in 2016, and not surprisingly, it turned out that outside of track, he had a great life, including a lovely bride named Deb, four children, a grandchild and another great passion, cycling with Deb. He would research routes meticulously including riding thousands of miles from Madison to Raleigh, North Carolina. Summer vacations were enjoyably spent on the Outer Banks in Carolina where he was apparently fond of water balloon fights with his neighbors.
The smile on his face on his lovely, elegantly-written heart-felt obit was as bright as a summer’s day in Carolina, or La Crosse for that matter. I will include the obit in its entirety here rather than continue to poorly paraphrase from it.
Track always has to fight an uphill battle for recognition against the heavyweight sports of baseball, basketball and football and it needs more advocates like Rongstad to tell the stories of its brilliant simplicity, relentless energy and epic finishes.
As I noted earlier, Figi of Wisconsin Girls High School Track and Field Honor Roll has worked hard for many years to promote girls track in Wisconsin with his excellent website, creating and keeping top performance lists for girls as well doing excellent up-to-the-minute updates of up-and-comers as well as past champions. During that time, others like my fellow Menomonee Falls North track junkie Mike Krugel, ace Whitefish Bay pole vault coach Paul Tilleman and others have contributed accurate information to keep the lists relevant.
Before them, keeping the faith on honor rolls were the likes of Greg Eichelkraut, Jack Rauwerdink, Bay girls track coaching legend Lois Wolf and Bill Cross. I always remember looking in the 1970s in the spring in the late great Menomonee Falls News, for Cross’s state honor rolls. I believe they were springboard’s to my life-long love affair with the sport.
I’ve never lost that passion. The state meet in La Crosse and many, many remarkable individuals like Rongstad have helped keep it burning bright
in the end, Rongstad carried a bright torch for track at a time when the sport really needed it. We could use more like him and Figi right now. I will do my part, who will join us to fill his very large shoes?
The others who we lost also had terrific stories, of large deeds and small graceful gestures.
***I met Coutts in the late 1990s, as he always seemed to be working North Shore Conference meets at Homestead where he had taught and coached from 1969-94. Tall, affable, with a good sense of order and a ready smile, he would indulge my occasional dumb question about track rules, as long as I stayed out of his way. As the years went by and I got smarter about the sport, he and I grew into a nice, welcome casual friendship and we always seemed to be glad to see each other at track and cross country meets.
He was a larger than life figure who was known as “Mr. Cedarburg” for his work on the school board, the common council and a myriad number of other civic boards. He was even mayor from 1999-2003. He is survived by two sons, his loving wife Carol, four grandchildren and three great grandchildren. He was really something, He always seemed to be enjoying himself and always had a friendly and helpful attitude towards the kids. I’m going to miss him a lot every spring and fall.
Especially when I’m down in the teeming press pit every June in La Crosse for the state meet. It was always heartening to hear his voice call out results or lists of participants. He and Randy Pickering always made a great tag team in that department. I remember one particular June not so long ago, about the time of his retirement from officiating, that I clambered up to the very top of Memorial Stadium to deliver a copy of a story that had included a photo of him.
His smile was as bright as the sun that day when I put it in his hands.
Here is the link to his lovingly detailed obit: https://www.muellerfuneralhome.com/obituaries/James–W-Coutts?obId=19121991
***Pulkownik was a teacher and head boys coach at Brookfield Central for many years who I covered for several springs. He was a hard-charging individual who didn’t go out of his way to make friends with the press but he and I always worked well and the kids always seemed to respond to him. His specialty was working with the throwers and behind the 2003 state shot put and discus champion Thomas he had a crew that was almost unbeatable. The trio of Thomas, Pete Ringquist and Steve Johnson still have the Greater Metro Conference discus relay record of 453-10, which has stood since 2002. I had a lot of fun working with his kids.
***Thompson’s passing at age 28 stunned everyone and is a cautionary tale on the underserved, understudied and criminally underfunded field of mental health. He was a top-notch hurdler and relay runner for East when the Spartans won that first state title in 2011. He even anchored the winning 4 x 400 relay which effectively clinched the team title. He was smart, ambitious, and had a solid track career at Wisconsin (earning second-team indoor All-American as part of a Badgers’ distance medley relay team) and also graduated well (he was academic All Big 10 in 2014). People I spoke to said they lost track of him after a time but that they always thought he had potential to do anything he wanted to.
In Bill Glauber of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s sound story of his tragic death it was reported at the time that he was still studying osteopathic medicine in Missouri but was on leave from school. Apparently the illness hit him later in life as Glauber’s lead spoke of a “a mental health crisis” which probably set him off on the actions that would lead to his death.
As usual in these situations, there was much more to the story.
In Glauber’s article, long-time friend Jacob Brefka described Thompson as the “best of us in many ways. Truly a good and nice guy. …driven.” But Brefka also noted that his friend was “in the process of learning to live with (his) late-onset mental health issues.”
Wapello County Sheriff Don Phillips agreed, saying: “Mr. Aaron Thompson was clearly a successful young man with a bright future. Unfortunately, mental health can affect anyone and appears to have played a significant role in this chain of events. Our heart goes out to the Thompson family who lost a wonderful son. …”
I only knew Thompson casually from a single interaction with him at state track in 2011, but hearing the horrid news about his death made me sick to my stomach and bothers me still for all the potential love, friendship and accomplishment that was lost. I don’t blame the homeowner for what happened. I blame a system that stigmatizes mental imbalance and ridicules the search for help.
So please, please, please, if you have issues, or know someone who does, search for help. It is a sign of strength, not weakness. Try, please, always try.
The website address for the Wisconsin Mental Health Center is https://rogersbh.org/screening-request?gclid=Cj0KCQiAv6yCBhCLARIsABqJTjb4210_4qMdteeJKZ3vHf_LxuS_PyekJhfkqKBlksGgln6OdCyCMSUaAiqcEALw_wcB There are other resources that the hurting can be directed to too. Anything done to help someone in crisis is a gift of mercy.
So now as we wait for the start of this hybrid track season that will soon arrive (no indoor campaign will be held a concept I know many athletes and coaches are cheering), we would do well to remember and honor this quartet of Wisconsin’s best in every opportunity we get to run, to throw, to jump, to coach or simply to write about track.
They knew that every chance to do so, be it on a warm sunny day, or even a cold and drizzling night celebrated the great sport they loved.
We would do well to take that concept to heart.
UP NEXT: I will resume my state track in La Crosse series with my piece on the boys 2016 meet. I will get it out soon. Thank you for your patience.