A giant has died: Al Sheahen was our chronicler and conscience

Al Sheahen. Photo courtesy of Tom Sheahen

Al Sheahen. Photo courtesy of Tom Sheahen

Al Sheahen died Tuesday morning, and I can’t begin to express my shock and sadness. He was my role model in masters journalism, but meant far more to the movement. He was a national-class long hurdler, founding publisher of National Masters News, sparkplug behind the Age-Graded Tables and a longtime treasurer of WAVA (now WMA) who lost a race for president in 1997. He was inducted into the Masters T&F Hall of Fame in 1998. A lifelong bachelor, he doted on nephews and was a Ralph Nader disciple and fierce advocate of a guaranteed national income. He blogged on HuffPost. Al’s death at 81 was reported by his brother Tom, who wrote: “Al died … after an illness that got progressively worse over the past couple years, sort of one-step-forward and two-steps-backward progression. Al has had myelofibrosis for over a decade (it’s a slow-moving relative of leukemia), and has been getting bone marrow transfusions … more and more frequently in recent times.”

Al ran hurdles at Long Beach State in the late 1990s and last competed in 2006.

Al ran hurdles at Long Beach State in the late 1990s and last competed in 2006.

Tom continued:

In early October, Al’s health went downhill steeply, and he had very severe intermittent back pain. Al was bouncing back and forth to hospitals and nursing facilities for a couple weeks. Feeling good last Thursday, he went back home to his apartment, but on Friday got much worse; drifted into unconsciousness on Saturday; has been getting intravenous pain medicine since, and died peacefully this morning.

Linda Pain, wife of masters track founder David Pain, wrote me:

Al was a good friend for many years. We noticed how frail he seemed at David’s 90th birthday party (in August 2012). For several years he had told us he had anemia, but now seems it was a slow acting form of leukemia.

Hal Higdon, the running author and pioneering masters athlete, wrote friends:

Just as my wife Rose and I were pulling out of the Jacksonville Airport parking lot in a rental car last night, we got a call from Tom Sheahen saying that his brother, Al Sheahen, had just died. I don’t like to take calls while driving, but I called Tom back when we arrived at our condo in Ponte Vedra Beach. The news came as a shock. We are in the midst of our annual move from our home in Indiana to our second home in Florida, so I am still processing the information.

Al Sheahen, of course, was one of the key people in the masters movement, serving as secretary for WAVA for 10 years and founding National Masters News. His event was the 400 meter hurdles and mine the 3000 meter steeplechase, so we each liked jumping over barriers 3 feet high, but we moved in different competitive niches on the track. Off the track, we were very close friends, even though we usually saw each other only every other year at the World Masters Championships. And during the past decade we each moved away from competition allowing the masters movement to roll on without us.

Al’s sister Terry composed this obituary:

Allan John (Al) Sheahen, 81 years of age, passed away Tuesday, October 29, at his home in Sherman Oaks, CA. Al was born June 28, 1932 in Cleveland,Ohio. He graduated from Cathedral Latin High School, and Denison University, excelling in Speech and Debating. He has made his home in CA since 1955. Al was a principal figure in the “Masters” (over 40) running, track and field community; he served 10 years as the Secretary of the World Veteran Runners Association [actually treasurer of World Association of Veteran Athletes –ken], and edited the magazine “National Masters News” for nearly 4 decades. Al received many accolades for his writing; his most recent book is “Basic Income Guarantee: Your Right to Economic Security,” published in 2012.

He is preceded in death by his mother, Virginia, and his father, Allan Newman Sheahen. He is survived by his sister Terry (Robert Dawson) of Cleveland OH, brother Tom Sheahen of Oakland MD, and his brother Robert Sheahen of Los Angeles, who offered him love,care and comfort during his final illness.

Dear Uncle of Scott, Kyle, and Kelly (Charles Gerner); Dawn, Deborah, Angela, Jennifer, Elizabeth, James, Colleen, Kristen, Laura, Allan, and Andy, and great-uncle of many.

Tom Sheahen added:

Al’s wish was to be cremated with ashes sprinkled around Yosemite Park, where he loved to camp for 30+ years. Surely there will be a memorial service in Los Angeles reasonably soon. … My brother Robert moved rather swiftly and set up a memorial event. … The Celebration of Al’s life [will] be on Sunday, November 10, from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Braemar Country Club at 4001 Reseda Blvd, Tarzana CA 91356. (Tarzana is a northern suburb of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley.)

Now my tribute.

In 1995, a few months before I started the precursor to masterstrack.com, I began subscribing to National Masters News and found Al’s monthly a little fuddy-duddy. It didn’t seem to tackle controversy.

Al at David Pain birthday party in August 2007.

I took potshots at what I called a “Mom and Pop” operation. But when I met Al at meets, I warmed to him and he to me (after some initial wariness at my muckraking mind-set).

Later, I became a huge fan when he vented about the royal tastes of WMA leadership at the 2001 Brisbane world meet. He wrote a long editorial titled “Which way, WMA?” and exposed its seamy underside as only an insider could. It cut so close that Sweden’s Torsten Carlius (who defeated Al in the 1997 presidential election) was compelled to respond.

In the late 1990s, when I helped write Len Olson’s “Masters Track and Field: A History,” Al Sheahen showed up everywhere. He took over a New York-based masters track newsletter in the late 1970s and moved it to Southern California. After the 1994 Northridge earthquake, which destroyed NMN offices, he moved the paper to Eugene, Oregon.

Even before NMN, however, Al was a correspondent for the Masters Sports Association and U.S. Masters International Track Team newsletters, where he covered events with wit and insight, such as the 1977 debate over whether masters track should affiliate with IAAF despite its ban on South Africa. (Al supported rules changes that let anyone from any country compete in masters meets.)

Al spotlighted all records (a habit that I emulate), with his column from a July 1978 meet being a great example. (See page 13 in this PDF.) His name peppers many of the archived publications at mastershistory.org.

In 1979, Al was named Masters Administrator of the Year by a USATF precursor. And then came one of his brightest ideas — and perhaps his most enduring legacy.

He pushed the concept of the Age-Graded Tables.

As the book recounts, Al moved in 1986 to have all events age-graded (not just the decathlon-type multi-events), and the rest is history. For many years, in fact, he organized a handicap 100-meter race at masters nationals in which all the age-group champions ran different distances in an effort to crown a true “best masters sprinter.” NMN even cut the winner a check of $100 or so. Al also set up age-graded 800-meter runs at the Mt. SAC Relays, where the oldest runners went first and the youngest started measured seconds behind.

But don’t forget Al was a great athlete. He competed in world meets and was an exceptional quarter-miler and 400-meter hurdler in his mid-40s. I find marks of 57.6 (400) and 63.3 (400H) for him in 1977, when he was 45. He probably ran faster. His last masters nationals may have been at Eugene in 2003, when he medaled in the M70 short and long hurdles. His last season apparently was 2006, according to mastersrankings.com.

But I’ll remember him most as the man who tried to save WMA from itself. Like Rex Harvey, Al couldn’t overcome the Eurocentric bent of the voting delegates. But here’s what I wrote just before the 1997 vote at Durban worlds:

Al Sheahen, editor and publisher of National Masters News and the current treasurer of the World Association of Veteran Athletes, is making a bid for the WAVA presidency. He would become the third president in the group’s history and the first from America. Cesare Becalli of Italy, WAVA’s leader since 1987, is being term-limited out. Sheahen, who lives in Southern California, ranked eighth nationally in the M60 long hurdles in 1996. In a letter to WAVA affiliates and voting delegates, Sheahen wrote: “We must be more professional in our dealings with prospective bidders and organizers. . . . We must develop promotional materials and a professional marketing plan. . . . My goal is to build a better, stronger, worldwide veterans athletics movement in cooperation with the IAAF.” Sheahen is running against Sweden’s Torsten Carlius, currently general secretary of WAVA. The election is in July at the WAVA meet in South Africa.

Moreover, a Q&A that Al circulated at Durban could still be considered a manifesto for WMA in the 21st century.

Al with Rex Harvey at 2011 Sacramento worlds.

Al with Rex Harvey at 2011 Sacramento worlds. (Photo courtesy Linda Pain)

None of this was on my mind in August 2012, when I picked Al up at the train station in San Diego. He had come to attend David Pain’s 90th birthday party, and I was honored to be his chauffeur. He couldn’t drive down from his Sherman Oaks apartment northwest of Los Angeles, so I told him to take the train. He moved slowly, on swollen legs. I had no idea of his illness.

After the party, I drove him back to Santa Fe Depot. He was grateful and offered gas money. I succeeded in declining it. Never saw him again.

On August 21 — two months ago — I visited my son in Northridge and sent Al email, asking if he wanted to get together. I had news to share about Rex Harvey running for WMA president again.

Al replied:

Just got your email. Are you still in the Valley? I’m home for the evening. Call me at 818-981-XXXX. We can meet here or at a local coffee shop.

I was already home when I got Al’s note. Wish I had seen it earlier.

Decades before this blog and “TrackCEO” — and all the blather about my being the masters track know-it-all — Al Sheahen was The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Sports Illustrated of masters track. Further, he strove to improve the sport by engaging with its world governing body.

He competed, celebrated the efforts of others and made the sport what it is today. David Pain lit the fire, but Al Sheahen fanned the flames.

Without Al, this sport would not be the family it is today.

Godspeed, Al Sheahen. You were the best.

Al with David Pain at a family event. (Photo courtesy Linda Pain)

Al with David Pain at a family event. (Photo courtesy Linda Pain)

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October 31, 2013

17 Responses

  1. Peter Taylor - October 31, 2013

    Al Sheahen was a wonderful, wonderful man, and Ken, you have essentially said it all. I am very much saddened by his passing.

    Al was interested in intellectual matters as well as sport, had a very cordial and pleasing manner, and was never pretentious.

    On a personal note, he encouraged me to send him reports of masters track meets, which he published in the NMN, and he recommended me for Buffalo worlds (1995). Thus, I actually announced at worlds before I had ever announced a nationals. I have Al to thank for that.

    We have lost a great one.

  2. Suzy Hess Wojcik - October 31, 2013

    We loved Al. He had a wonderful sence of humor. He was like a brother to us. We would all proof the National Masters News together. Jerry, myself, Al, and Angela Egremont. Every issue. We would fax all the copy from Eugene to Al in Southern California. There, he would work it over, then fax it back or call us with any changes he saw. We knew for a long time that Al was ill. We are deeply saddened by his passing. In addition to running the hurdles, Al was actively involved in softball, played basketball for many years, and was a fine tennis player. He excelled at bridge, and wrote many published letters to various newspaper. He had a great voice and announced at national and world masters meets. He also sang in several choruses in the Los Angeles area. He loved to discuss politics. He was truly a modern Renaissance man. We appreciate greatly Ken Stones tribute to Al. Suzy Hess Wojcik, Jerry Wojcik, Angela Egremont.

  3. Serge Beckers - October 31, 2013

    I am very sad to hear about the passing away from Al. He was a great person. I met him for the first time in Sacramento 2011. Sadly enough, it has also been the last time.
    I hope he may fight rest and peace in the aftermath of his life. I will think about him and carry on his memory.
    Thanks for everything Al,

    Serge Beckers
    Vice President Stadia WMA

  4. Susie - October 31, 2013

    Al was a torchbearer, an encourager, a wonderful, informed announcer for many, many years at Masters T&F Nationals and a great human being.

  5. Bridget Cushen - October 31, 2013

    How sad to read of the passing of Al and immediately after the World Masters Athletics Championships. I first met him in 1983 at the Women’s Meeting during the WAVA Track & Field Championships in Puerto Rico. His National Masters News monthly newspaper played a major role in reporting, promoting and analysing Masters athletics. He had many supporters here in Britain and we offer our sincere condolence to his family.

  6. Ken stone - October 31, 2013

    Runner’s World Online notes passing:

  7. Jerry Donley - October 31, 2013

    I am very sorry to learn of Al’s passing, he will be, and has been, greatly missed by the world wide masters program. During the years I was the chairperson of the National Masters Committee I worked very closely with Al. He was an important part of our activities. Al was at heart a journalist, first and foremost. As a journalist he taught me a very important lesson about how to conduct a process. In 1986-1987 the committee put together a selection process for a city to submit a bid to host the 1989 World Championship. The interest was heated and quite intense. Al was a, proponent that the city be Los Angeles Al was also a member of the selection committee. To avoid criticism the committee tried to keep the process and voting quiet. It was not “secretive” but we felt the less information that was put out the better, in order to obtain candid opions from the committee members. We ended up selecting Eugene. Imagine my shock, surprise and dismay when in the next issue of the National Masters News after Eugene was selected there was a full blown article in the Masters News about the selection process, including discussions and voting. Not what I had in mind. The result of the article was that there was virtually no criticism of Eugene’s selection! Unheard of in track and field activities. The lesson I learned, and have used it in a number of other group activities in which I have been involved, was that being open and providing full disclosure of “the process” is a great way to go; that, people are really discerning and make good decisions when they know what is going on. We will all miss Al and wish him “God Speed” as he continues to monitor us from above.

  8. Ken stone - October 31, 2013

    Letter to LA Daily News from brother Robert Sheahen:

  9. Weia Reinboud - November 3, 2013

    Sad news. Earlier this year I had contact with him by e-mail and his answer was ‘I’ll look carefully at it later’. But later has become never…

  10. Winston Thomas - November 3, 2013

    Having just read of the passing of a real masters legend Al Sheehan, I think that we all have many different memories of his time in the masters movement< So first I wish his family condolences knowing they will miss him more that we have missed him in the past year and for now ever. Al made, and had many friends in the sport from his articles in the masters magazine, in WAVA/WMA his running and of course his commentating. Al was one of the best master commentator, with his dulcet tone, enthusiasm and knowledge of the athletes he always brought the competitions to life, and he has been missed in the past years and now for ever. Dear Al "Rests in Peace". We will miss you but we still have lots of memories you left for all of the "masters family". Winston

  11. Jack Karbens - November 3, 2013

    My tribute to Al is that I still have and cherish almost every copy of National Masters News since it started. Many thanks to Al, Jerry and Suzie and Randy for preserving this Bible for Masters athletics. Hopefully NMN will continue to be supported financially for many years to come by subscriptions, donations, grants and subsidies.

  12. Hal Higdon - November 13, 2013

    I checked in here because I am writing a short tribute to our dear friend, Al, that will be carried in a later issue of Marathon & Beyond. Interesting that editor Rich Benjo asked me to do that, since I’m not sure that Al ever ran anything much longer than 400 meters with hurdles on it.

    But I was interested in Jerry’s Donley’s comments about the selection process for the 1989 World Masters Championships. At the risk of going too far off the subject, I too was part of the committee, which as almost its first order of business voted to exclude David Pain, because he had an apparent conflict of interest favoring San Diego. Of course, there were several others with similar conflicts who were not excluded, but David often served as a lightning rod for people’s anger.

    Anyway, the meeting began, with continuing discussions and votes, each vote excluding one city at a time until Eugene emerged the victor.

    Meeting finished, Bob Fine, who was an attorney, announced that, of course, we don’t want to advertise our discussions or the vote. I looked at Bob and said, “You should have told me that before you invited me to the party.” I was fascinated by the selection process and planned to write a major feature for National Masters News, which I did. Al, of course, was all in favor of it, and featured my story on the front page.

    I don’t believe Bob ever forgave me, but as Jerry admits, all the readers of NMN were as fascinated with how Eugene was chosen as I. Al Sheahen was a dear friend, whom I seemed to see only every other year at various World Masters Championships. The Masters Movement will not be the same without him.

  13. Ken Stone - November 13, 2013

    Good note, Hal.

    In fact, Al Sheahen ran a 2:10 for 800 meters at age 45 — as I learned at his memorial service Sunday. I’m in the process of preparing a video series sharing the Celebration of Life.

  14. Charles Coleman Jr. - November 23, 2013

    I’m so sad to learn of Al’s passing. He was a kind-hearted man who was always thinking of helping people who were poor. He was a very intelligent, thoughtful, caring man. Al always had time for people and he had a great sense of humor. It hurts to learn that he has passed, but I hope all of us who knew him will remember him well as we go forward and help people who are hungry, homeless, and need healthcare, as well as do what we can to safeguard the environment and seek peace.

  15. Karl Widerquist - April 29, 2014

    Ken Stone, I guess you and I worked with Al in very different parts of his life–you in track and me in basic income. I wrote this tribute to him for Basic Income News:

    Allan “Al” Sheahen was an author, an athlete, a disc jockey, a promoter, a publisher, and a long-time campaigner for the basic income guarantee (BIG). He died at his home in Sherman Oaks, California on October 29, 2013 after battling myelofibrosis (a slow-moving bone-marrow disease) for over ten years.

    Sheahen is known in the movement for BIG as a tireless, long-term campaigner for BIG. He helped to found the USBIG Network. He helped keep the idea alive during the era in which it fell out of mainstream politics in the United States. And he wrote some of the best introductory books on BIG.

    He was born in June 28, 1932…

    Read the rest at: http://binews.org/2014/04/allan-sheahen-the-steeplechase-runner-of-the-big-movement-has-died/

  16. Ken Stone - November 24, 2014

    Another perspective:

  17. Marcus battle - November 25, 2014

    Hey ken we need an award in his name

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