City Lifestyle

Want to start a publication?

Learn More

Featured Article

50 Years Later

1972 Citizens Committee Races to Construct KSU Stark Track for AAU Olympic Stepping Stone Meet

Article by Jennifer Draher

Photography by Supplied

Originally published in Canton Lifestyle

They called it Stark County’s most unusual real estate investment. That’s how a committee of citizens pitched its fundraising campaign to transform a “tranquil, grassy slope” on the Kent State University Stark Campus into an all-weather track for the Amateur Athletic Union 1972 National Women’s and Girls’ Outdoor Track and Field Championships.

The AAU meet was to be held June 28 - July 2, 1972, as an “Olympic stepping stone” where the top finishers would qualify for the Olympic Trials July 7-8 in Frederick, Maryland. More than 900 athletes were expected to compete.

A group of community leaders, business owners and Stark residents met regularly starting in September 1971 to discuss the possibility of hosting the event in Canton – even though they didn’t have a track. 

The committee submitted a bid to host the meet, along with competing bids from Knoxville (TN), Philadelphia (PA) and Wilmington (DE). In early October, the AAU awarded the bid to Stark County thanks to its ideal Midwest location. With just nine months before the event was set to take place, the committee had a race of its own divvying up various tasks to bring the pipedream to fruition.

It’s a dream that appears to have started with Bob Kistler, a 1944 McKinley High School graduate and avid athlete who played football and basketball, ran track, and was a diver on the swim team. He ran track again in college, and later coached several sports at the high school level before jumping to the collegiate level with KSU Stark. Bob served as Kent State Stark’s athletic director and a health education professor from 1963 until his retirement in 1985.

Bob, along with Jack Morehart, the first dean of the Stark regional campus, had recently led the construction of a health and physical education building (now the KSU Conference Center). Their plans to add a track facility derailed that summer when allocated state funding got held up. Bob saw hosting the championship meet as an opportunity to build the track another way.

“Dad was a good recruiter,” says Jon Kistler, Bob’s son. “He would get fun things like this started, and then ask people to help him out. He did a pretty nice job, so people did help.”

Bob took on the role of meet director and convinced his friend Dick Kempthorn – fellow McKinley ’44 alumnus and football player – to chair the citizens’ committee. Dick was a local automobile dealer and a strong booster of area athletic programs. The trio of Bob, Jack and Dick delegated responsibilities for a feverish fundraising campaign to finance the all-weather track surface and the event itself.

“$1 BUYS A SQUARE FOOT OF TRACK,” reads the January 25, 1972 progress report stashed in Dick’s briefcase of well-preserved meeting notes. The team made phone calls and sent letters to businesses of all sizes and community leaders asking for donations for building materials, housing, food, referee uniforms, flagpoles, competition equipment and more.

Construction was underway in January. By February 15, the committee had secured 210 rooms for athletes at three Belden Village hotels. On March 5, they held an open house in the Kent State Stark Field House to show off a scale model of the track and field. In mid-April, registration packets went out in the mail to competitors.

“JUNE’S A’COMING!” said Phyllis Allen, vice chairman of publicity, in her detailed progress reports. She also encouraged the committee to “HUSTLE YOUR BUCKS” and fill the treasurer’s cash box.

And hustle they did – with both money and manpower. Dick’s son, Jim Kempthorn recalls personally hammering trim pieces into the track with his siblings and other kids of committee members.

“We were up against the wire,” recalls Jim. “The families all helped and we were out working till dark many days.”

The work paid off. In the end, the committee received countless donations and volunteer signups. The North Canton Jaycees offered to sell programs; local physician Virgil Tirmonia signed on as the official meet doctor; someone donated free billboards. People simply came together for a common goal in an inspiring way.

Not only did the committee complete its sprint to race day, but reaction to the AAU meet was overwhelmingly positive from competitors, coaches and officials alike. In fact, the event was so well received that Canton was one of only six locations invited to bid for the 1976 Women’s Olympic Track and Field Trials. Nearly everyone from the citizens committee returned to submit that bid, though they weren’t successful that time around.  

Bob, the enduring sport enthusiast, did successfully host the U.S. Olympic Swim Team to train at his Branhaven Swim Club on Portage Street. One of its members, Mark Spitz, won seven gold medals at the 1972 Munich Games.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the AAU meet, and we salute the individuals who worked tirelessly to bring the track to life and made our county shine.