Jerry Wetzel and Jim Phillips

Jerry Wetzel, left and Jim Phillips are pictured with the plaque recognizing George Saling into the Iowa Association of Track Coaches Hall of Fame during a banquet and program held on Dec. 7 in Ames. Wetzel and Phillips were the main figures responsible for Saling's induction into the Hall of Fame.

The following is a speech that was given by Jim Phillips during the banquet and program held on Dec. 7 at the Gateway Center in Ames as George Saling was inducted into the Iowa Association of Track Coaches Hall of Fame. Saling was inducted following his success as an athlete at Wayne Community School and after as an Olympian.

First let me thank Mike Jay for allowing me to accept this honor on behalf of George Saling, Corydon’s favorite son and 1932 Olympic Gold Medalist.  George’s personal best in the hurdles was recorded at 14.1 seconds at the 1932 NCAA meet, which at the time would have been a World Record.

After doing a little research, it occurred to me that if George and I had grown up in the same era we would have been great friends. Turns out, George and I had a lot in common:

  1. We were born in Missouri – George in Memphis, MO in 1909 and we moved to Iowa before our first birthday –George was 3 months old, I was 5 months
  2. We grew up in Corydon and were raised in the Methodist Church
  3. Each had an older sister
  4. Our fathers served for a time as an elected public official, his was the county sheriff, mine as mayor
  5. We graduated from High School in Corydon, George in 1927
  6. We graduated from the University of Iowa, George in 1931
  7. We really liked playing basketball
    1. George spent time in Field House trying to make the varsity team
    2. I spent way too much time in the Field House playing pick-up games between classes
    3. Our greatest athletic achievement was in a sport other than basketball
      1. My Football Coach, helped me to be an All-State lineman for the HS football team of 1979
      2. George Bresnahan, the U of I track coach is credited for plucking George Saling off the basketball court and turning him into a world class hurdler

Before I go on, I would like to thank Jerry Wetzel for introducing me to Mike Jay.  Jerry, was a track coach at Bedford, Wayne Community and assistant at Indianola High School.  Little did Mike and Jerry know when they asked me to accept this honor for Mr. Saling, many of my most memorable moments have come while experiencing track and field events.  Mr. Wetzel’s connections with the Girls High School Athletic Union provided me an opportunity to watch and work with the great Jim Duncan as he announced the Girls State Track Meet in the 1970’s.  A second brush with fame also took place on the track and field stage.  In 1976, while visiting the Olympic complex in Montreal, Canada I had a chance to meet Bruce Jenner as he trained just days before he won the Decathlon gold medal.

By the way, I said I love track, I didn’t say I was any good at it.

So, how does a guy who never ran track relate to one of the greatest track stars in Iowa history? 

Well… I was raised in a culture where athletics, of all kinds, were important.  My father was a schoolteacher, coach and administrator for 36 years.  There were many times dad needed my help with running off track meets at Saling Field.  And although I would run from the track to the press box with the latest results, I always stopped to watch the hurdlers and imagine how far ahead George Saling would have been had he been in the race.

During my teenage years, two experiences reinforced my appreciation of George Saling and my fondness for track & field.  As I alluded to earlier, I was fortunate to experience the Olympics in Montreal.  Knowing how much I liked going to track meets, my father asked me to attend the final day of the Olympic decathlon with him.  My Olympic juices were overflowing as I sat in the Stadium watching the Decathlon events unfold.  After the competition was over and the gold medal awarded to Bruce Jenner, thousands of Americans stood and sang the National Anthem.  I now realize that the same pride and respect we showed towards Bruce Jenner that day was the same sentiment that George Saling had experienced in 1932. 

The second event that brought me closer to George Saling was in my pursuit of Eagle Scout award.  In the summer of 1977 I needed to complete a service project in order to finalize the requirements for Eagle Scout.   This project is meant to have a meaningful impact for the community you are serving.  My father had suggested a project that would help identify the track & football field’s actual name as “Saling Field”.  At that time any signage or designations that had once been there had long since been weathered away or removed.  The track and field had been designated in George’s honor in 1938 but it seemed that over the years “old timers” were the only people that recognized this designation.  To rectify this situation I made it my goal to see that Saling Field and George’s accomplishments would not fade away from our memories.  My project was to make a series of redwood signs that would name the field and list the Olympic and World Record accomplishments.  By the fall of 1977 these signs were mounted on the scoreboard and press box at the athletic facility.

As it turns out not only did I get to meet one of our modern day great athletes, but I also came to know and appreciate one of the great athletes of the past.

Sometimes all it takes is the right coach, the right circumstances and most importantly the desire of the athlete to maximize their skills.  As the story goes, it was only by pure coincidence that George Bresnahan the Iowa track coach witnessed the hurdling prowess that George demonstrated as he playfully glided over a couple hurdles after a basketball practice.  Had it not been for this chance interaction at precisely this moment it is probable that George Saling would not have found himself winning the gold medal in the 1932 Olympics. 

There is a similar thread running through small communities like Corydon who have experienced the thrill of watching their great athletes compete and succeed at the highest level.  The pride that is born from these accomplishments gives the whole community a chance to revere and bask in the glory of the athlete’s success. For Corydon, George Saling stands to represent the reality of what hard work; perseverance and a little bit of fortunate timing can set the stage for a great performance.  The fabric of small communities has always been sewn together with the heartiness of the local businesses, vibrant schools and the students within them.  The accomplishments of great athletes and coaches in these communities will last long after the winds of change have swept away the players of that era. 

George Saling competed on the track for Corydon High School in the 1920’s.  What was true for George then is true for kids today.  It’s not enough to have great talent; you need a great relationship with a coach that can show you how to maximize your ability.  How many George Salings are walking the halls of our schools waiting for that special coach to pluck them from obscurity and give them the guidance, drive and determination to be that community’s next shining star.  The students of Wayne Community are fortunate to have such a role model as George Saling.  It was and is my honor and privilege to do a small part in keeping his light shining for generations to come.

On April 14, 1933 George Saling was killed in a car accident near St. Louis, Missouri.  He was only 23 years old and it occurred just months after winning the gold medal in Los Angeles.  How different would it have been if there had been no George Saling to cherish and admire in the Corydon Community for the last 86 years.

The Prairie Trails Museum in Corydon has a wonderful display honoring George and his accomplishments.  They have his Olympic attire including track uniform, warm up suit and jacket on display.  Other displays around Corydon include plaques displayed on the bandstand on the town square and also at the newly renovated athletic complex on the NW side of town.  All serve to carry on the legacy that George Saling and his family would be proud to represent. 

Thank you all again for giving me this opportunity to accept this honor on behalf of Corydon’s Olympic Champion, and now a member of the Iowa Association of Track Coaches Hall of Fame, George Saling. 

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