Bob Adams was a good ole country boy — but a very inventive and imaginative one — who parlayed his skills and determination to become an amazing ambassador for Saskatchewan track and field.
He grew up on a farm on the edge of Alsask, near the Saskatchewan-Alberta border, in the Depression days of the 1930s and decided that team sports, like hockey and baseball, had limited opportunities. He wanted to find an individual sport where he could set his own pace.
“I first tried the shot put, made by melting down scraps of lead, but one side was round and the other flat,” Adams once told me. “Then I dragged a 16-foot two-by-four and a branch of a poplar tree to school to make a pole for the pole vault. We dug a pit. By 1939, we had three or four boys who could vault nine feet.”
Clarence Garvie of Saskatoon was teaching at Alsask, and he recommended that Adams should attend the University of Saskatchewan. There, he was greeted by Joe Griffiths, the athletic director, who told Adams he’d “been waiting for him to arrive.”
That launched the competitive career for Adams, who starred at the university and represented Canada at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics and the 1954 British Commonwealth Games at Vancouver.
One winter, he suffered a knee injury on the basketball court and that ended his competitive days. He went on to become a teacher, mentor, coach, administrator, official and all-around general handyman in the promotion of the sport.
His legacy is immense, climaxed by the October 2018 appearance at the 35th annual Bob Adams Foundation awards night in Saskatoon. His life in track covered a span of nearly 80 years.
He died peacefully in hospital in Victoria on Feb. 23, having lost his battle with cancer. He was 94. He and his wife Marge lived in Victoria since 1985 after retiring in Saskatoon.
The interesting footnote to the Garvie-Griffiths connection is that when Adams graduated from university, Griffiths was on the public school board and he told the board they shouldn’t let Adams get away. He started his teaching and coaching career, alongside Garvie, at Nutana in 1947.
There was one slight interruption in his university schedule. He joined the Royal Canadian Army in 1944.
There was an incident in the army which involved the name of Syl Apps, an Olympic pole vaulter in 1936, who later endeared himself to all Canadian boys as a star with hockey’s Toronto Maple Leafs.
“I was asked to compete in an inter-service track meet,” said Adams, “but I didn’t have any shoes. The sergeant-major gave me a pair that fit, and on the shoes was the name of Syl Apps. So while I never did fill his boots, I certainly wore them.”
As a coach at Nutana and Aden Bowman collegiates and the Saskatoon Track Club, he discovered talent and developed many into stars. His prize pupil was Eleanor Haslam, a sprinter at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, the 1958 Commonwealth Games in Wales and the 1960 Olympics in Rome. He found Diane Jones and her sister, Joanne, on the schoolyard at Churchill elementary school and made sure they attended Bowman.
With the presence of Adams, Saskatoon became one of the hottest properties for staging events. First came the senior women’s and junior, juvenile and midget championships in 1955.Then the Olympic trials in 1956, the Commonwealth trials in 1958, the Olympic trials in 1960, the Canadian championships in 1963 and the Pan-American Games trials in 1967.
With expertise in running meets and a strong fan base growing, Saskatoon launched the Indoor Games in 1965 and later the Knights of Columbus carried the mantle into the event which still exists today.
If asked for favourite moments, Adams would probably count three. One was Harry Jerome’s 100-metre world record run at Griffiths Stadium in July, 1960.
Another would be the medal-winning races by Bill Crothers and Jerome at the 1964 Olympics in Japan when Adams was head coach of the Canadians. Another would be American Bob Seagren’s world indoor pole vault record performance at the Saskatoon Arena in 1966.
But life wasn’t all about victories and glory with Adams. In days when volunteers weren’t terribly active, he marked the lines on the tracks, raked the jumping pits, staked out the paths for cross-country runners and carried the weights equipment to meets.
To the young athletes, he was coach, caregiver and virtual parent. Even in the fall of 2018, he went to a track meet in Victoria and helped as a referee for pole vaulting.
The Bob Adams Foundation annually gives out awards of excellence and scholarships to young people from all over the province. In October, foundation president Kyle Williams thanked Adams for “lending his name and energy to the foundation, for a lifelong commitment” and admitted “we could have never come this far without you.”
Adams and I have been friends since 1953. He was always a go-to guy. There have been many meets, many interviews and I’ve probably written thousands of words about him. We talked early in December. Not long after, and during his fight with cancer, came a letter. As usual, it was hand-written.
He enclosed two books about the foundation, one being “a souvenir of the 35th anniversary which my nephew Ken Adams and I put together. The foundation has reached into many small Saskatchewan communities which I always wanted to do.”
There was a slight observation: “Excuse my writing.” And, then, as usual, the wish, “Please keep in touch.”
And now, for many of us, there is an appreciation of a life well-lived.