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Sprinting past segregation

When Baltimore County school officials would not let the track team at the all-black Sollers Point High School in Dundalk run time trials at the all-white school up the road, their coach decided to make his own track.

J. Bruce Turner hitched a metal bedspring to the rear fender of his old Plymouth. He piled cinder blocks - and a few students - on top. And he drove his car around the oval pattern that he and the school's math teacher had plotted until the dirt was flat enough and smooth enough to serve as a makeshift track.

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"It was the segregation era," said Thomas Bagley, 73, who graduated from Sollers Point High in 1952 and helped carve the track. "You had to be creative. If you had nothing, you just had to be creative."

The effort paid off. The teams that Turner trained there in the early 1950s won gold medals at the Penn Relays in Philadelphia for three consecutive years.

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The track - named for Turner in 2006 and newly restored - will reopen today with a ceremony to honor the late coach and his contributions to the Turners Station community and Baltimore County athletics.

"This community revered this man," said Edie Brooks, a nurse and member of the Turners Station Conservation Team, who attended Sollers Point High for two years. "He has a long history here. He had no children, and he treated those children on the track team as if they were his own."

Turner, a New England native who died in 1992, came to Baltimore County public schools in the 1940s after graduating from Springfield College in Massachusetts. There, he was a standout high jumper at the school known for teaching physical education and wellness.

"That is the physical education school and he had different kinds of experiences [there] than we had in segregated Baltimore County," recalled Donald Patterson, 75, a retired assistant superintendent of Baltimore city schools who ran on Turner's first gold medal relay team.

"We played football and baseball and basketball - and we were quite good at it. But he introduced us to track and field and so many other things," Patterson added. "He was the ultimate physical education teacher."

His cousin, Dr. Theodore Patterson, played basketball for Turner. He remembers his teacher and coach as "a breath of fresh air," having added soccer, track, gymnastics and even square dancing to the curriculum.

"He played the fiddle himself," the 75-year-old retired physician said of the school's square dancing classes. "He was an incredible person and a taskmaster. He expected results and he expected the utmost effort from his students and his team members."

Turner began his career in Baltimore County at Bragg School, which served African-American students in grades one through 11. During segregation, students at Baltimore County schools for black students could advance only through the 11th grade while students at white schools could attend for 12 years.

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He transferred to Sollers Point High when it opened in 1948.

"It was quite a treat when they opened Sollers, which was state of the art to us and had a gymnasium and a laboratory and a library - things that we didn't have at the old Bragg school," Theodore Patterson said. "It was almost like going to college for me and my peers at the time."

One thing the school lacked, however, was a track. And school officials turned down Turner's request to let his team practice at the all-white Dundalk High, his former students recalled.

Undeterred, the coach and the school's math teacher created a trigonometry project for students. They mapped out a 220-yard oval - a distance half the size of regulation quarter-mile tracks - and hooked a set of bedsprings to Turner's car.

Then, the coach drove around and around the field next to the school, until the weighted-down metal dug a path into the dirt and leveled the surface, said Bagley, who helped with the project and whose brother ran track for Turner.

"He was a pioneer in his field in an era when a black man in Baltimore County did not stand out," he added.

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In 1950, Turner took his track team to the Penn Relays, the nationally known track and field competition held at the University of Pennsylvania since 1895.

"I had never been in front of that many people in all my life, so of course, I was nervous," said Donald Patterson, who ran the second leg of the four-man relay. "Standing on the platform to get that gold medal, it was completely out of sight."

He attributed the team's success to their coach. "There's no question about it. It was all Bruce Turner," he said. "He simply trained us. He brought the talent out."

Sollers Point's mile relay team went on to win two more consecutive gold medals at the Penn Relays. The teams' accomplishments were all the more impressive considering the homemade track on which they practiced and the size of their student body. As the county's smallest school, Sollers Point had but 44 students in its first graduating class in 1949.

The dirt track was eventually replaced by a state-of-the-art asphalt surface that Baltimore County built in 1957 to Turner's specifications. A 1958 article in the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper reported that the new, $95,000 track was better even than those at the University of Maryland and the U.S. Naval Academy.

The coach went on to Dundalk High School, where he was one of the first African-American educators to teach and coach white students after Baltimore County schools were integrated. He later helped bring indoor track to county schools and served as a frequent host and official at county and state track meets.

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In 2006, Turners Station community activists organized to name the track after him at what is now a specialized magnet school called Sollers Point Technical High. But they couldn't afford to repair the track, which had crumbled and sprouted weeds.

This year, Honeywell International, a technology and manufacturing company based in Morristown, N.J., and P. Flanigan & Sons, a 123-year-old paving company headquartered in Baltimore, chipped in to restore the track as part of Turners Station's revitalization efforts.

Brooks, the nurse and lifelong resident of the historically black community who helped spur the track improvements, hopes neighborhood groups and recreation leagues will use it to teach young people to run and exercise. She hopes to start a walking group that will gather weekly at the track.

And she hopes it will serve as an inspiration to people to focus on and improve their health.

"Nostalgically, I would say that that would be a great honor to J. Bruce Turner and a tribute to the man who gave us a track," she said. "Now, we're bringing it back and using it to make us more fit and more healthful."

jennifer.mcmenamin @baltsun.com

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If You Go

Sollers Point Technical High School is at 325 Sollers Point Road, Dundalk. The ceremony to honor J. Bruce Turner and celebrate the restoration of the track is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m.



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