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Toolin’ Around Town: Recalling JFK’s 50-mile hike in 1963

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On a recent sunny, Saturday morning, seven hale and hearty septuagenarians gathered in front of Petaluma Junior High School to reminisce over a significant (but little recognized) milestone of athletic endurance. They were celebrating the 57th anniversary of when they were among 13 PJHS (and four Kenilworth Junior High students), who accepted President John Kennedy’s 1963 fitness challenge to walk 50 miles in one day.

Energetic and optimistic, though lightly prepared, the intrepid group eagerly set off from the junior high school at 5:15 a.m., Feb. 16, 1963, with a few sandwiches, candy bars and canteens filled with water. Their plan was to follow the meandering Bodega Highway for 25 miles through rolling hills and farmland, punctuated by several long, steep inclines, to a marker near Doran Park, then back to the school.

Those present at the reunion gathering included Stan Augustine, Jeff Getty, Steve Rodgers, Ron Rosager, Bob Spurgeon, Alan Holmberg and Bob Arfsten, who were ninth graders at PJHS. Reached by telephone were Tom Firestone and Livie Van Pelt-Thompson, eighth graders representing Kenilworth.

Four of the 14-year-olds, Augustine, Getty, Rodgers and Gary Acorne, completed the arduous trek, made more difficult by cold, rainy weather. Others lasted as long as they could before dropping out due to blisters, hunger or fatigue.

“Some people dropped out on the way out, others on the way back,” said retired educator Augustine, who finished the walk in 15 hours and 50 minutes. “We had no idea it would take as long as it did.”

Intended as a test of fitness, willpower and stamina, the teenage Petalumans treated it as lighthearted fun, an opportunity to meet the president’s challenge and to spend one long day with friends.

“I don’t remember it being a contest, or being serious about finishing,” said Rodgers, who retired after teaching 36 years in the Twin Hills Union School District. “We weren’t even sure we would finish. It was kind of a lark.”

Described as a craze, a fad, or a physical fitness exercise, the idea behind the 50-mile walk originated with Kennedy’s discovery of Theodore Roosevelt’s executive order from 1908 challenging Marine officers to finish 50 miles in 20 hours.

Kennedy expected his 50-mile walk to be performed by U.S. servicemen as a test of endurance. But the real impact of the 50-mile march was with the general public, who took it as a personal challenge.

“The physical vigor of our citizens is one of America’s most precious resources,” said Kennedy, with the word vigor sounding like “vigah” in his Bostonian accent. After his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, took up the challenge, in freezing weather, wearing a pair of leather oxfords and finishing in 17 hours and 50 minutes, the public saw it as a daunting but doable challenge, and the fad spread nationwide.

At the time, there was very little information on how to prepare for a 50-mile journey, so most hikers just winged it, which was apparent with the Petaluma group’s footwear, mostly Converse All-Stars. The lone girl, Livie Van Pelt-Thompson, wearing Keds, took her father’s advice and wore two pairs of socks.

“I’m sure I wore my Levi’s and my All-Stars,” recalled retired construction worker Firestone. “That’s all I ever wore. George Ellis and Roy Van Pelt acted as chaperones, offering rides to those with sore feet. On the way back, it started raining like crazy and a lot of kids took rides. That’s a long ways. People don’t realize it.”

A smiling Van Pelt-Thompson said she expected to be joined by several other girls, but they failed to show up.

“I went along just to have fun,” she said. “There was so much enthusiasm behind it.” Van Pelt-Thompson estimated she covered about 45 miles. “At first, I didn’t want my dad involved. I was afraid he’d embarrass me. But he brought oranges and sweet rolls and water. I do regret not finishing.”

A hard rain pelted Bob Arfsten’s group as it reached the halfway marker.

“We were all wet and cold. We said, ‘This is crazy,’ ” he remembered. “About four or five of us jumped into a station wagon. Everybody had a good time. The fact that everybody’s parents let them do it was surprising.”

“I remember parents driving by and checking on us,” recalled painting contractor Bob Spurgeon. “We were just kids, all jacked up and excited, doing what 14-year-olds do. It was one of the most seminal events of junior high.”

Alan Holmberg remembered making it past Valley Ford before foot blisters forced him out.

“We thought we were spry and in good shape,” said Holmberg. “I remember how sore I was.”

None of the original walkers ever attempted the 50-mile challenge again, but most of them remained physically active beyond high school.

Ron Rosager enthusiastically continued hiking as an adult, climbing Mount Whitney and Mount Shasta and, for 30 years, regularly hiking to the top of Mount St. Helena.

“I remember the 50-mile walk being fun and jovial,” said the retired painting executive, who completed about 40 miles before hopping in a car. “Not finishing remains one of my life’s regrets,” he added. “I could have made it. The adults persuaded me to accept a ride.” He later starred on the gridiron and golf course for Petaluma High, earning a football scholarship to Stanford University.

A top football prospect, Getty followed former Petaluma High football coach Don Read to Humboldt State University, where he became a four-year starter and all-star who is enshrined in the Humboldt State Athletics Hall of Fame. A happy 50-mile finisher, he mostly remembers, “starving at the end.”

A one-time second-place finisher in the Sonoma-to-Petaluma Walkathon, Augustine teamed with Getty on Humboldt State’s football team. While teaching at Sonoma Valley High, he created the “Sonoma-Ocean Relay,” a walking-jogging-running relay event for the track team.

Besides hiking a number of times in the Desolation Wilderness over the past 52 years, Rodgers hiked the 13,500-foot Annapurnas in the Himalayas in Western Nepal and circumnavigated Mont Blanc in the Alps. Last year, he trekked through Patagonia with Spurgeon, who described the experience as “training camp for masochists.”

As for the 50-mile challenge all those years ago, Spurgeon now says, “I remember some of us went back to the school to watch the finishers come dragging in. They definitely had the desire to finish.”

On Feb. 22, 1963, students from Santa Rosa High started their own 50-mile trek to the coast. Among them was current Argus-Courier sports editor John Jackson, who completed all 50 miles.

(‘Harlan Osborne’s ‘Toolin’ Around Town’ runs every other week in the Argus-Courier. You can reach him at harlan@sonic.net)

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