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Barefoot champion heeds call of the wild

OSU's shoeless Dale Story won the '61 NCAA cross country title

(Originally published Nov. 16, 2001)

RICHLAND, Ore. - Envision Norman Rockwell's America: Acre after acre of farm land and open pastures. Scattered houses and barns along a gravel road. Hills and valleys as far as you can see in the distance.

The November midday sun and warm air - 65 degrees, no less - suggests late June.

The whir of a circular saw interrupts the glorious solitude on this 14-acre spread on Old Foothill Road, tucked into the northeast corner of Oregon, just 25 miles from the Idaho border and the Snake River.

Behind a weathered turn-of-the-20th-century farmhouse is a log cabin under construction. Out the front door bounds a rascal of a man, wood chips in his unkempt hair and graying beard, calluses on his gnarly hands, dust on his pants and boots, and a twinkle in his eyes.

'Some place, huh?' asks Dale Story, and it is.

This is the homestead in which Story and his wife, Paula, have lived for the last six years, after they moved from Listen, another tiny town tucked into the Wallowa Mountains. The first spruce log went on the self-designed dream house in June; the home will be completed by December, a 3,000-square-foot monument to God's country.

'Moved here because you can grow anything here,' Story says. 'Came up on a visit … saw grapes and peaches, and I told Paula: 'I could live here.' '

The voice is raspy but full and hearty. Just months shy of his 60th birthday, retired four years after 30 years of teaching in the Wallowa school district, Story remains active in mind and body.

He gardens - '30-pound watermelons, 5-pound cantaloupes, 2-pound tomatoes' - and tends to his acreage and builds his house and kayaks and camps and hunts big game and climbs hills faster than either of his thirtysomething sons, who aren't bad, either.

Look beyond the ravages of time, and it is easy to imagine the gifted, unusual young man who, as a junior at Oregon State, won the NCAA cross-country championship at East Lansing, Mich., on a cold Nov. 27, 1961.

Beat Billy Mills, Tom O'Hara and Australian Olympians Pat Clohessy and Al Lawrence, among others. In 30-degree weather. Running barefoot. The Beavers won the team title, too. Forty years later, it remains the only national team title in the school's history.

He liked 'being free'

Story, raised in Orange, Calif., was a Northwesterner at heart. He hated the city and loved the outdoors. Always a small kid, he loved to run, and he would frolic in the playgrounds of Southern California 12 months of the year, sans shirt, sans shoes. Except when he contracted polio at age 11.

Temporarily paralyzed from the neck down, he was out of commission for seven months but recovered fully. 'The good Lord shined on me,' he says.

But Dale hated school, and he came from a broken home. In the spring of his sophomore year of high school, not long after he had run a 4:32 mile, he was ready to run away.

'I had it all figured out,' Story says. 'Had a thousand rounds of ammunition and a 22. Was going to go up the east side of the Sierras and go to Alaska.'

A counselor he respected talked him out of it. He stayed in school, made passing grades and, as a 5-8, 140-pound senior, beat Dyrol Burleson's national high school mile record, finishing in 4:11. He wore spikes in that race; often, though, he ran barefoot.

'I just liked the feel of running barefoot, of being free,' Story explains. He never wore shoes in high school meets until the California Interscholastic Federation made uniforms mandatory. 'Because there was a bit of slippage on the track,' he says, 'I started wearing spikes for some track meets my junior year, but I always ran cross country barefoot.'

His feet became extremely callused, and at times he developed blood blisters. Sometimes during a cross country race, he would step on a thorn. 'I'd just swat it out of my foot and continue,' he says.

After a year at Santa Ana (Calif.) Junior College, where he set a world junior record in the two-mile and won state cross country and two-mile titles, Oregon Coach Bill Bowerman offered Story a scholarship. He opted for Sam Bell and Oregon State primarily because the school offered a fish and wildlife major.

Bell, who had a long, successful career at Indiana after leaving OSU in 1965, is retired and living in Bloomington, Ind. He coached several Olympic distance runners, including Bob Kennedy and Jim Spivey, but considers Story 'the best physical talent I ever coached.'

At Oregon State, Story established school records at every distance longer than a mile in track and set 13 course or meet records in cross country. His only national title, though, was at East Lansing in 1961. Part of the reason was a division of interests.

'My love of outdoors was kind of the problem,' Story says. 'I had this tug of war going on. I wanted to be an Olympic champion; that was my goal. But I saw wilderness being encroached on by civilization. I kept thinking, 'It isn't going to be there forever; I better enjoy it now.' That became my demise in track.'

Instead of training full time, Story would take off on a hunting/fishing trip in British Columbia for a month in the summer.

'On weekends during the school year, he would put in that kayak in Monroe, paddle down the Willamette River to Corvallis, then put the thing on his head and walk home,' Bell remembers.

Lynn Eves, a Canadian Olympic sprinter and a teammate of Story's at OSU, liked him but considered him eccentric.

'I mean, running those races barefoot ... it's a real attention-getter because nobody else was doing it,' says Eves, now an insurance man in Beaverton.

Says Bell: 'I guess he thought shoes were uncomfortable. Dale took pride in being different.'

Eves: 'He was a unique guy. I remember him going on hunting trips with pals and telling us stories about castrating sheep. His interests were a little different than the rest of us. But, man, could he run. He was as good as it got.'

During his prep career, Story became intrigued by Maurice Ravel's 'Bolero' and would play it over and over in his head during a race.

'I would listen to it for an hour solid before a race to get that running tempo in my head,' he says. 'What a psychological uplift. Music was a motivator above and beyond anything else I experienced.

'I tried to get Sam to pipe 'Bolero' through the loudspeakers during meets. I told him I would run faster. He looked at me and laughed.'

Story trained for a short time after his graduation in 1965 with the idea of taking part in the 1968 Olympic trials but soon gave it up.

'I remember telling my first wife, 'My heart just isn't in it,' ' he says. 'I struggled with that for the next 12 years or so. I felt like a failure. Then finally, I realized I did what I wanted to do; I didn't achieve all my goals, but who does?'

Barefoot boy triumphs

Oregon State entered the national cross country meet that year on a lark. There were no qualifying events in those days. The Beavers had a good team, though, and when they did well in a meet in British Columbia in late October, competitors told Bell he ought to enter his team in the NCAA meet.

Bell approached Athletic Director Spec Keene and eventually got approval with one provision - he could take only five runners. Though only five entrants counted in the scoring, every other school brought seven to cushion against injury and provide greater opportunities for a better team finish. It almost proved the Beavers' undoing.

When the Beavers went for their practice run the night before, Story ran barefoot as usual.

Competitors from the far reaches of the country thought he was a kook.

'People laughed at me,' Story recalls. 'There were acorns on the course. Those guys thought I was absolutely crazy. They said, 'Man, you're going to hurt your feet.' Didn't bother me at all. They said there are couple of hills on the course. We said, 'Man, you got to come to Oregon if you want to see some hills.' '

Story figured if he ran well, he would finish among the top six. He broke fast and took the lead just before the halfway point in the four-mile race.

'I took a hill about 3/4 of a mile away, and I felt really strong then,' Story says. 'I kept thinking about Big John Ward, my old JC coach, who had been like a father to me. I remember thinking, 'This is for John.' '

Story won by 40 yards in 19 minutes, 46 seconds. Soon, his teammates followed. Rich Cuddihy was 12th, Bill Boyd 16th, Cliff Thompson 25th. Then came Jerry Brady, limping home in 51st place.

'Jerry pulled a muscle at the two-mile point, but he knew he had to finish,' Bell says. 'If he hadn't, we wouldn't have won.'

The Beavers were national champions. They hugged and congratulated one another. Then they flew home. There was no celebration on campus. Few people noticed. Life returned to normal, and the accomplishment was all but forgotten until a few years ago, when the team was inducted into the OSU Sports Hall of Fame.

Couldn't live in a city

Story never ran again, but he continued to make his mark in his sports. He coached track and field for 29 years and cross country for 25 at Wallowa High.

His boys teams won seven state championships in track and two in cross country, and his cross country teams finished among the top five in the state eight other times.

Early in his career, Story considered seeking a college job, 'but I would have had to live in a city, which would negative everything I'd been looking for in life,' he says. 'I wouldn't change anything I have done. I did the best I could.

'Look at all the things I learned from running - the friendships, sportsmanship, the camaraderie, the goals, never giving up. That's one nice thing about getting older. You learn to appreciate things a little more.'

Today, Story enjoys retirement, but he is hardly idle. He hikes the nearby hills, often without shoes. Long one of the Northwest's premier bow hunters, he has bagged 31 big-game animals, including black bear, moose and a bull elk with antlers big enough to stretch across two counties.

'Sometimes when I'm moving in for the stalk, I will take off my shoes,' he says. 'It is quieter. You can feel the ground with your feet. I have been doing it for so many years, it is kind of a like a good-luck charm.'

On Nov. 27, the 40th anniversary of Oregon State's only NCAA championship, Dale Story will take a hike up a nearby ridge into the hills shadowing the Wallowa Mountains. He will take a moment to reflect back on that day when he was the best runner in the nation, with 'Bolero' driving him to reach the finish line first.

And if there is no snow on the ground, rest assured he will be barefoot.

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