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Walter Cole, who built some of the top high school track and field programs in the city, dies

As teacher and coach, Walter Cole was devoted to mentoring his students.
As teacher and coach, Walter Cole was devoted to mentoring his students.

To get a sense of how beloved former Carver Vocational Technical High School teacher and coach Walter Wilson Lester Cole was, a group of students planned a surprise party for him at last year’s Homecoming. And a crowd showed up at Easterwood Park next to the high school to surprise him.

“All the kids got together just to say thank you,” said his wife, the former Alice Murray. “He was flabbergasted that they came and did that. He was just overwhelmed.”

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Mr. Cole, who coached Olympic gold and silver medalist Bernard Williams at Carver Vo-Tech and guided some of Baltimore’s top track and field teams at Carver Vo-Tech, Frederick Douglass and Northern high schools, died Sept. 10 of cancer at Northwest Hospital in Baltimore. He would have turned 82 on Oct. 30.

Robert Ames, who ran cross country and the 800, 1,600 and 3,200 in track at Carver Vo-Tech, called Mr. Cole “a father figure.” He said Mr. Cole was a frequent visitor at his mother’s house on Saturday mornings.

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“You don’t see teachers on the weekends,” Mr. Ames said. “But early on Saturday mornings, he would be at my door coming to get me. My mother would come to my room and say, ‘Your coach is here.’ I was like, ‘What?’ He would come and take us to the Penn Relays or marathons. He just kept us out of trouble. He always had us going somewhere where there was running.”

Daniel Cofield, another cross country and track runner for the Bears, said Mr. Cole promised him a new tracksuit if he broke the 5-minute mark in the mile during a meet, which Mr. Cofield did as a senior in 1977. He said Mr. Cole presented him with a green-and-blue tracksuit during practice in front of the entire team.

“He really just encouraged us,” Mr. Cofield said. “He always tried to instill in us the good things like go to school, get good grades, come to school every day, do your best. He just kept pouring that into us — not just as a coach on the track, but as a human being. So we kept on going.”

Mr. Cole was the fourth of nine children born to the former Marjorie Brown, who worked in the benefits authorization department at the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn, and Walter Franklin Cole, who worked in the maintenance department at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Raised in Baltimore, Mr. Cole attended Benjamin Banneker Elementary School and Paul Laurence Dunbar Junior and Senior High School, graduating in 1956.

In high school, Mr. Cole found his calling in cross country and track and field. He went undefeated in cross country and lost only once in the 1,600 during his high school career, according to his family.

“That was just his sport, his passion,” Mrs. Cole said from her home in Randallstown. “Though he had that team spirit, he also had individual goals, and he pushed himself to win.”

After developing into an All-America cross country runner at Morgan State University, Mr. Cole graduated from the school in 1961 with a bachelor’s degree in science. He worked at what was known as Robert Moton Consolidated School in Westminster until 1964, when he transferred to Douglass High School.

After a six-year stay there, Mr. Cole moved to Northern in 1970 until 1972, when he transferred to Carver Vo-Tech. He served as the head of the science department there, teaching physics and biology until his retirement on Jan. 1, 2004.

Mrs. Cole, who met her husband in 1977 at Carver Vo-Tech, where she taught consumer economics before marrying him in 1986 in Randallstown, said her husband turned down offers to leave teaching for a position as an administrator.

“He preferred to stay and work with students and mentor them,” she said. “Once you go into administration, then you aren’t going to have the day-to-day contact with the students. So he didn’t want to do that. He wanted to be able to work with his students in the classroom, and he wanted to coach.”

Mr. Cole’s star protégé was Mr. Williams, a 1997 graduate of Carver Vo-Tech who was part of an American 400-relay team that won gold at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney captured silver at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece, and was the fastest man in the 200 in 2003.

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Mr. Cofield said he and his teammates could always hear Mr. Cole’s booming voice yelling “Pull” during meets.

“He would say, ‘The guy is coming on you!’ And he would never allow us to look back on where the guy was,” Mr. Cofield said. “He would just tell you to pull and keep on. That encouraged us to run even faster and harder.”

Mr. Ames said Mr. Cole was relentless in trying to find ways to inspire his runners. One of his favorite tactics was reminding them of what their competitors were doing.

“If we wanted to go to the movies, he would say, ‘So-and-so is not going to the movies. So-and-so is out there on the mountains running,’ ” Mr. Ames said with a laugh. “It motivated us because when he came to find you and if you said something like, ‘Mr. Cole, I don’t feel like doing anything today,’ he would say, ‘Unbelievable! Unbelievable! There are other guys out there running 40 miles, but you’re whining.’ He just always had something to say.”

Carver Vo-Tech runners, left to right, Bernard Williams, Jeffrey Blair, Andre Falcon and Kemo Arrington, flank coach Walter Cole. Michelle Gienow/Freelance photo
Carver Vo-Tech runners, left to right, Bernard Williams, Jeffrey Blair, Andre Falcon and Kemo Arrington, flank coach Walter Cole. Michelle Gienow/Freelance photo (MICHELLE GIENOW)

Mrs. Cole said her husband — who stopped participating in 5K races in 2017 — enjoyed fishing, working on home improvement projects and traveling, especially to Aruba. But she said he derived his greatest satisfaction from mentoring students.

“He wanted to work with young people and let them see what they could accomplish,” she said. “It was more about the students than it was about him. It was about teaching them discipline because it took a lot of discipline to do that. And that discipline was transferable to a lot of their careers that they would pursue after high school and college.”

Funeral services were Wednesday at Vaughn Greene Funeral Services in Randallstown, with burial at Druid Ridge Cemetery in Pikesville.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Cole is survived by two sons, Walt Cole Jr. of Catonsville and Curtis Murray of Reisterstown; one daughter, Tanya Cain of Gwynn Oak; three sisters, Joan Cole of Baltimore, Nina Rawlings of Baltimore and Marsha Marcano of Gwynn Oak; two brothers, Wayne Cole of Baltimore and Gary Cole of Randallstown; and six grandchildren.

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