Bill Hirtle stands at the north end of the track in Bridgetown, just west of the new school. Districts are coming up and he watches the youngsters train.
Sixty-eight years ago he was digging rocks out of that same track. They cleared it from the 220 mark to the finish line the first year. They were able to use it the next year -- 1952.
Bill’s 94 years old. He’s just finished delivering 35 meals for the Lions Club and a betting man would have him in his huge garden after supper.
He stands by an old monument at the edge of the field as Lillian Lawrence zooms around the track. Kids are throwing javelin. Coaches Ryan Elmore, Glen Melanson, and Steve Young work with other members of Annapolis County Athletics. It’s early evening and Lillian and her long shadow rarely connect as she seems to fly. Mere seconds to sprint 200 metres.
Bill thinks 15-year-old Lillian has potential. Just like Lloyd Robinson almost seven decades ago at that very location behind the then-new Bridgetown Regional High School.
“We couldn’t run on it the first year. It was filled with boulders and rocks,” he says of the track. “We trained around the old school that burned. The location of the elementary school. It was just about a quarter of a mile around. And Lloyd Robinson, who was the best runner we had then, used to live right by the Anglican cemetery and we’d sit on his verandah and he’d do his 440 runs and we’d scrape his times in the sand.”
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Bill is one of the last surviving members of the original staff at BRHS that opened in 1951. The school was torn down in 2018 and when Districts are over this year the old dirt track will be torn up to make way for an eight-lane, state-of the art, artificial track -- a multi-million dollar project that will see the redevelopment of the old school grounds into an athletics, soccer, and tennis mecca.
But Bill Hirtle was never really a runner himself.
“I used to train by myself as a student at Acadia. I went in two races – eight miles,” he remembers. “Silas MacLeod, 67 years old, beat me. I said ‘I’m not going to do anything in this sport. Running.’”
But he did coach the Mahone Bay Junior High School team in Bridgewater for a track meet over there. “And my uncle, A. G. G. Hirtle who was principal of Bridgewater, was coaching the Bridgewater kids. The first Acadia Relays was won by Bridgewater – my uncle. I didn’t know that until a few years ago.”
Acadia Relays -- interscholastic championships -- was what Bill had his eye on for the Bridgetown runners back in 1951.
“When the Acadia Relays were on, the first year we went I said to the boys, I said ‘let’s see how we do here.’ QEH used to win everything on natural talent. I said ‘if we’re going to beat those buggers we gotta work at it.’ So we trained all winter and summer. I gave up my summers coming up here five, six nights a week at the track.”
They went to the Acadia Relays the second year.
“Major Kelly, he was the director, said ‘what do you think you’re gonna do?’ I said ‘I think we can break three records.’ ‘Oh,’ he says. ‘What in?’ I said ‘the 440, the mile, and the mile relay.’ ‘Oh,’ he says. ‘You might break the mile relay record. You might break the mile record. But,’ he said, ‘you won’t touch that 440 mark.’”
The 440 record was set by Frank Nicks in 1928.
“Anyway, the heats were on a Friday. They ran as finals on a Friday,” Bill says. “It was cool, but not much wind, and I can still see Lloyd Robinson at the 220 mark. Thirty yards behind was the next competitor. He came over the line and the timers were the longest while on their watches. He took two-tenths of a second off and we broke the mile relay record and he was two seconds off the mile record. That’s how close we came.”
It was the beginning of a track legacy in Bridgetown that saw teachers like Bill, Jack Walker, Dick Campbell, and others develop provincial and even national champions. Later Charlie Scarrow trained Olympian Jenna Martin in Bridgetown. David Morse was one of Campbell’s runners and went on to train Kentville’s Mason Foote, once called ‘the fastest boy in Nova Scotia.’ Foote went on to be a national champion.
“Bobby Lockett and John McIsaac,” says Bill. “They were cut-throat on the track. In fact McIsaac spiked Lockett at the start of a race. They were great competition for one another, and McIsaac always said ‘I’m gonna beat you some day.’”
He only did it once and that was at the Canadian Age Class Championships in Waterloo.
“That would have been around 1964, ’65. They were in separate heats in the 3,000 metres and they should have been in the same heat, because if they had been in the same heat Lockett would have been three paces ahead of him,” Bill contends. “But they both won their races and came first and second.”
The ripple effects of Bill’s first year at BRHS are still being felt as Lillian Lawrence flies around the track. She’s doing 200 metres five times with rests in between. Bill stands at the little monument. Puts his arm around her. Tells her he’ll be back to watch her at Districts.
“Track is my hero sport because you just get to run fast and really enjoy yourself while you’re running,” she says, getting her breath back from her last 200 metres. “It’s tough at times. I think that’s why a lot of people don’t do it. It really pushes you to improve. You can always see your improvements in your times.”
This year she’s running the 100 metres and 200 metres. “And I just started throwing jav,” she says.
“Growing up there was always Districts and I’d come and watch,” she says. “I never really gave it that much thought until Ryan (Elmore) asked me to start coming out when I was in Grade 6. It’s cool that there’s people like Bill and Charlie Scarrow that are from Bridgetown. Jenna Martin that I can try to emulate.”
She’s in Grade 9 and has won the 100-metre at Districts every year since she started. Last year she missed the 100-metre record by .05. And she tied the 200-metre junior girls district record last year that stood since 1980. She won the 200-metre at Regionals last year and was second in the 100-metre.
“She’s very competitive with girls in her age group at Athletics NS events throughout the indoor and summer outdoor season,” says her dad, John Ray Lawrence. He and mom Jen sit in the truck watching. "As parents we like that Lillian is seeing that hard work pays off. It’s something she will carry with her throughout life.”
Bill says hard work pays off. And you’ve got to watch what you eat.
“It really makes me more self-disciplined,” says Lillian. “I know if I don’t keep working at it I’m not going to get any better. If you stop for a week you lose a lot. You really have to push yourself to be better.”
She has a seven-day schedule that she tries to keep to with one or two days off. That includes all aspects of training from equipment at the new Annapolis County Athletics gym, cardio laps, and five-by-200 sprints like Bill watches her do.
“Since this year’s the last year for the dirt track all the records are going to stand for Districts,” she says. “So after this Districts there’ll be dirt track records and after we get the new track there will be a different set. So this year I’m going to go for the intermediate 200-metre record. I don’t know if I’ll get it or not. It’s not that much faster than the junior. So I’m going for that. And I always just want to improve my personal best.”
She’s standing beside that monument. A step closer and you can read what it says: “In recognition of the outstanding contribution of three men to B.R.H.S from 1951 to 1976. No Victory Without Struggle.”
Those three men, all involved in track, were J.R. McIsaac, the school’s first principal; Jack Walker, the schools second Principal; and Bill Hirtle who became the schools third principal.
They’ll move the monument when the new track’s built. Bill’s only hope is there will be enough people to keep it – and athletics – going.
Bill get’s in his car and heads home. He could do that drive in his sleep.
Lillian has two more sprints to do.