Remembering Bob Fine: a masters track founding father
Bob was happy in his USATF element: the 2006 annual meeting in Indianapolis.
(This report originally appeared on Masters Athlete Daily online. Thanks for your contributions!) Reno’s daily newspaper and local TV stations treated it like another traffic fatality — a jogger, 77, was killed while crossing a major artery in the pre-dawn darkness. The woman driving the 2000 Pontiac that hit him wasn’t speeding. Alcohol wasn’t involved. End of story. But the victim — Robert “Bob” Fine of Delray Beach, Fla. — wasn’t just another jogger. He was among the handful of men who founded Masters track, and wrote the Constitution of the World Association of Veteran Athletes (now WMA) in 1977. He competed in all 17 masters world outdoor championships, usually as a racewalker, and most of the 40 U.S. Masters championships. He was inducted into the USATF Masters Hall of Fame in 2002.
Fine’s death on Dec. 3 came hours after attending a Masters Committee meeting at USA Track & Field’s annual convention, held at the sprawling Silver Legacy Resort Casino in downtown Reno. Word of Fine’s passing shocked hundreds, leaving many in tears, especially the Masters delegates. Some had known him for 40 years.
“Heartbreaking,” wrote Mary Woo of Northern California.
“This is so shocking,” wrote Liz Palmer, a writer for National Masters News. “Bob and I had made plans to start a traveling trophy competition between Golden West Athletics Club and (his) Florida Athletic Club based upon points scored during our association championship meets. Bob’s emails were full of fun and good humor. He teased me about hurdling and said that being racewalker made him a ‘feet on the ground’ type of guy.”
Said Rob Norton: “I still won’t let myself believe it. One of the first people to welcome me into Florida Masters Track and Field was Bob Fine. To me, Bob was like a force of nature in Masters track. We worked hard to promote Masters track/field and sometimes singlehanded organized and ran a meet, while competing, in order to keep the tradition alive.”
USATF immediately put out a news release in Reno, quoting outgoing federation president Bill Roe: “Bob’s contribution to USA Track & Field has been enormous, and we are all stunned by this terrible tragedy. To get news like this is always devastating, and to have it happen here at our Annual Meeting adds to the shock of what has occurred. Our deepest sympathies go to his family, and to the many, many people who benefited from his tireless work.”
A New York lawyer who resettled in Florida in 1978, Fine was the East Coast version of David Pain, the West Coast lawyer who founded Masters track.
Stephen Cohen, an Illinois lawyer, led a moment of silence for Fine at the first Masters meeting last Thursday, a day after his death. Distance runner Norm Green, an ordained Baptist minister, led a 20-minute “We remember Bob” memorial at a meeting Friday. They recalled Fine as irascible, combative and contrary — but always devoted to the best interests of his sport and a friend to many.
“He was a ‘hard hitter’ in life because he cared so much and worked so diligently,” wrote Peter Taylor, who announces most Masters national championships and met Fine about 1978.
A Track & Field News message board carried vivid remembrances.
“My Lasting Bob Fine image: Aug. 1975 Westchester, N.Y., just prior to the first World Vets Champs in Toronto,” wrote one poster. “Bob put on a Masters meet with top international and USA guys at White Plains High School. It was HOT and Bob lugged water to the officials, runners and fans — hot like 178 degrees or something and Bob pouring sweat from every pore, going back for basket after basket of water all day long.”
Another post: “In the 1970s and the early 1980s, before he moved to Florida, he tirelessly organized Masters competition for the many people interested in our fine sport. Without his efforts many of us would not have had the opportunity to begin competing again. He always had time to talk to you. He was a wonderful man.”
Bob founded an early newsletter for the New York-based Masters Sports Association, which grew into National Masters News, a monthly still serving the Masters track world.
Born June 15, 1931, Fine attended Bronx High School of Science, where he won a city title in the 880-yard run and took ninth in the state cross-country championships. At Syracuse University, he helped his team win an NCAA cross country title.
Fine discovered Masters competition in 1969, entering a race as a Sub-Masters race walker, admittedly in bad condition.
“As my rival was coming across the finish line, half a lap ahead of me, the announcer intoned: ‘There goes the youngest 75-year-old around,’ ” Fine recalled in the book “Masters Track & Field: A History.” “I was afraid that he would then say of me: ‘There goes Bob Fine, the most decrepit 38-year-old around.’ That’s when I decided to get into shape.”
In 1971, Fine led an exodus of Masters track from a general track committee of the Amateur Athletic Union. The AAU had rules against “tainted professionals,” which included athletes who worked as coaches. Such athletes could get others disqualified just by being in the same meet. Masters risked being barred from international competition under such rules.
Fine fought them. The International Amateur Athletics Federation finally agreed, exempting women over 35 and men over 40 from what Fine considered a ludicrous decree.
A lawmaker until the end, Fine had proposed a USATF rule change in Reno that would have established a club-scoring system for race walkers at Masters nationals. The consensus, as voiced by delegate Sandy Pashkin, was: “We don’t have team scoring for the 10K at nationals. . . . . Why should we have it for the racewalk?”
The proposal went down to defeat. Only a couple dissenters backed it, including Dave Clingan, a Masters runner from Portand, Ore. “I voted for Bob,” he said.
On my blog, M55 hurdler Jim Broun wrote:
“Bob was instrumental in helping me as I slowly got involved in Masters track and field. He was unique, to say the least, but totally commited to helping the sport and especially in furthering the Florida Athletic Club and its members in their masters pursuits. I will always remember his enthusiasm at the WMA Indoor in France and his accomplishments there. I may not always have agreed with him, but I will always remember him with great respect as he was a giant in the Masters movement! God bless you, Bob, and Godspeed!”
Fine was cremated a couple days after his death, and his family took his ashes back to Florida, said a representative of John Sparks Memorial Cremation in Reno. He is survived by his wife, Gloria, and four children.
Photo of Bob Fine at 2007 Riccione worlds courtesy of Douglas Smith of Ontario Masters track