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A 100-year dash

PHOENIX — Dan Bulkley ran 100 meters.

There’s nothing particularly noteworthy about that. A masters track champion for three decades, he collected medals as routinely as a cabinet collects dusts. He has a cache of nearly 500 of them, some framed, some boxed, a few on display in his Phoenix home.

This 100 wasn’t his fastest by any stretch. Two aides accompanied him. As Bulkley’s arms churned and the balls of his feet tapped Lane 4 of the synthetic track with a soothing, tick-tock cadence, the handlers kept pace. Walking.

It took him a shade over a minute.

“I don’t run anymore,” Bulkly will tell you. “Now I try and jog a little bit. That’s about as fast as I can go.”

Here’s the kicker: Each meter of that 100 represented a year of Dan Bulkley’s life. The former Southern Oregon University track and cross country coach hit the century mark on May 4. It was a Thursday, and on the day he turned 100, his celebration was fairly muted.

“He said, ‘Promise to let me sleep in,’” says Marjorie, his wife of 34 years. “That was the morning he was going to sleep in.”

One would think he earned it.

A competitor at heart, it was natural Bulkley would commemorate the occasion by running the 100. He did so last Saturday, kicking off Day 2 of the Cascade Conference Track and Field Championships at SOU. He plans to run it again this Saturday, when a birthday party of some 200 guests — family and friends are another thing Bulkley has collected over these many years — commences at RoxyAnn Winery.

This race will be in a parking lot. It likely will be his last.

“I sure realize that I’ve slowed down,” says Bulkley. “I don’t make myself think I’ve got to do what I did five or 10 years ago.”

His goal is to keep moving. How he does it is not as significant as just doing it. He’s no longer able to do the heavy work in his 15-bed vegetable garden, but he often walks or jogs through his mobile home park or pedals a stationary bike for a half hour or so.

It fits his motto.

“You don’t slow down because you’re getting old,” he says, “you get old because you slow down.”

His sharp mind and sense of humor appear to be evidence. Bulkley has been active from the get-go, taking up tennis at age 6 in Thailand, where his father was a medical missionary and his mother a teacher. He played football and tennis and ran track stateside in high school and college. He did a hitch in the service, part of it with an intelligence unit that was the forerunner to the CIA. His most meaningful mission — parachuting into Thailand to set up guerilla ops — was aborted only because the atomic bomb ended World War II.

Bulkley returned to coach high school and college athletics, wrangling his way out of a contract in Southern California in the late 1940s so he could work at SOU. No sooner did he arrive in Ashland in 1950 than he began starting programs at the then-Southern Oregon College of Education: cross country, track and field, tennis, skiing. He participated in a variety of masters competitions at age 70, beginning a nearly 30-year string of success that included championships galore and numerous world age-group records.

He last competed a year ago in Bend, running the 50 and 100 meters. Did he win?

“Oh yes,” says Marjorie. “He was the only one in his age group.”

Julie Kirsten Kanta, of Story/Book Co. in Grants Pass, wrote Bulkley’s memoirs. The 100-page book, “My Century in Motion,” was recently published by Blurb. She found his easygoing manner a delight.

“I think Dan is definitely a guy who just goes with the flow,” she says. “That’s probably why he’s managed to stay healthy and live so long. He’s just a positive guy.”

The early years

Bulkley was the middle of seven children, all girls except him and a younger brother. He was born in Thailand and went to school in India. An early recollection of sports was volleying a tennis ball against a tall, smooth wall of his father’s hospital. Their compound had a backyard court the family utilized. He later learned a bit about football, playing touch.

His was a fractured family. Every seven years, one of the parents would take a yearlong furlough to the States and bring some of the kids. His two older sisters were “shipped” here to go to high school, he says, “so I hardly knew them.”

The clan had a reunion in California in 1934. Or, a meet-and-greet.

“I was 18,” says Bulkley. “It was the first time I got together with the rest of my family and found out who they were.”

The lone, full-family photo was taken then, says Marjorie. Bulkley stayed for his senior year of high school in Claremont, California. A classmate asked if he was going to play football. Nearly every boy did at the small school. The very first football game Bulkley saw, he played in for a few minutes at end.

Upon graduation, he attended the college in town, Pomona, where he again was in football, tennis and track. At 5-foot-4, 145 pounds, he was hardly imposing on the gridiron. But he could catch the ball and “sort of found the answer” to blocking, he says. On defense, he played end as well, usually against the opponent’s strong side in the unbalanced formations of the day. A proud moment came against a Marine team. It was a tough and talented bunch, but Pomona managed to beat the rivals twice while he was there, says Bulkley. And as a senior, he dominated.

Afterward, the Marine coach went to the Pomona locker room to talk to its coach.

“He said, ‘Who’s that 190-pound end you have? We sure couldn’t handle him,’” recounts Bulkley.

The Pomona coach took his counterpart to the showers and pointed.

“There’s your 190-pound end,” he chuckled.

“At 145 pounds, I was quite flattered,” says Bulkley.

As a junior, Bulkley wanted to give up tennis, but the coach was to name him captain as a senior and convinced him to stay on.

So Bulkley did both sports.

In track, he was a sprinter-turned-hurdler, but there were impediments other than those he had to glide over. Because of his stature, he took 17 steps between hurdles to others’ 15. Figuring that slowed him considerably, he sought to alternate his lead leg “so I could hit those hurdles right.”

The coach thought it a waste of time, but Bulkley worked on his own each day after practice. He finally got into a meet with the conference title on the line and placed a surprising second to help Pomona win the crown.

Years later, the style served him well as a masters athlete.

“It just came naturally to me,” says Bulkley. “When I got to the hurdle, it didn’t matter which foot was up. I’d just take it with that foot and keep on going.”

He put his mind to good use in the classroom as well, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physical education, leading to a job at Corona High School, where he taught and coached football and track.

Post college

Just when Bulkley thought he was getting football down, a wrinkle came to the game. Teams were putting the quarterback under center for the first time, and he attended a camp at Stanford to learn the finer points of the “T” formation.

“One of the instructors said, ‘Get the smartest guy you’ve got on your team and make him the quarterback,” says Bulkley.

At school, he found a bright, but little-used player to do just that and enjoyed a modicum of success. Bulkley was at the high school for a couple years before joining the Navy. He was in the service for 4½ years, the final two with the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), a wartime espionage agency under the Joint Chiefs.

“They sort of picked and chose whoever they wanted to work with,” says Bulkley.

With plans to invade Japan by way of Malaysia, Thailand and China, he says, the agency sought personnel with background in Southeast Asia. He applied.

“To me, it was a disappointment,” says Bulkley, recalling his final mission.

He was to parachute into Thailand to help set up camps to train natives in resistance techniques should the Japanese invade. Personnel and weapons had been dropped in the central part of the country.

His team flew over once but was waved off.

“They said, ‘Don’t jump,’” says Bulkley. “‘The Japanese are in the area and they’re getting suspicious. We don’t want you to get captured.’”

The plane returned to Calcutta. About three days later, they were to try again. The bomb dropped before they could take off. His “disappointment” stemmed from being on the verge of his most meaningful service contribution, only to have it scrapped.

Of course, he was happy the war ended, and he witnessed the Japanese surrender in Bangkok. Upon returning to California, Bulkley went back to teaching and coaching. He signed a contract with a San Juan Capistrano high school, but soon after learned of an opening at Southern Oregon.

He interviewed with the school president, was offered the job, then had to get out of his Capistrano contract. Bulkley was told he was “stuck.” He responded that he preferred a college job. Finally, the sides agreed that if Bulkley found his own replacement, he’d be released from his obligation. A few days later, Capistrano had a new football coach — Eldon “Moose” Schafer, who would later become a fixture in Oregon education as president of community colleges in Albany and Eugene.

Bulkley, in turn, headed north.

Coming to Ashland

Bulkley arrived at SOU in 1950 and began a 29-year career of teaching health and PE and coaching. Although he started several programs, track was his baby. His golden years were from 1962-64, when the Raider men won conference and NAIA regional championships. His cross country teams had similar success.

“In effect,” he says, “those teams were never beaten.”

His track teams won seven conference titles and boasted 81 individual champions. He was inducted into the NAIA Hall of Fame in 1977 and the SOU Hall in ‘89. Bulkley also had a hand in football in the mid-1950s. He had a 16mm movie camera and volunteered to film coach Al Akins’ games if Akins ponied up for film.

“Nobody used film for anything in those days,” says Bulkley.

He climbed a ladder to the top of the sturdy press box and shot the games. It took one reel per quarter.

“I almost felt like I was one of the football coaches,” he says.

Skiing was another passion. He first tried it at Mammoth Mountain in California, and his first rope-tow experience was Yosemite National Park.

“I skied a lot of places before they had their developments,” says Bulkley.

Mount Ashland included.

Bulkley herded college students to the mountain for lessons and recreation 10 years before it opened to the public in 1964. He helped form the ski patrol and was its first director. When he got the bug to compete in masters competitions, skiing was just another sport at which he excelled.

Life after 70

Bulkley hadn’t considered masters sporting events until a couple friends, Dick Nordquist and Don Gray, urged him to try them. He was 70 in 1987 when he entered his first meet. His second was abroad, the World Masters Track and Field Championships in Melbourne.

“I signed up and went,” says Bulkley, “but I didn’t know what I was going to run. I waited until I got over there and picked them (events) out.”

He chose wisely. Bulkley won five gold medals and set a world age-group record in the 300-meter hurdles in 53.84 seconds. He also won the 800, 1,500, 2,000 steeplechase and was on the victorious 4x400 relay. The masters track newsletter aptly proclaimed: Dan Bulkley came out of nowhere. Sports Illustrated included him in “Faces in the Crowd” in March, 1988.

The hurdle technique he adopted years earlier in college boded well. For 15 years and through three age groups, 70 to 84, he was unbeaten in the intermediates. In track, skiing and badminton masters competitions, he earned 492 medals and established 17 world records. In his living room in Phoenix, Bulkley points to a row of frames. They bear some of his medals and are there only because they’ll be displayed at his birthday party.

“They make nice ones,” he says, “but what do you do with them? For the first 10 years, I put them in frames like this and had them on the walls. Then I didn’t have anymore wall space.”

He’ll probably donate them to the Special Olympics so they can be given to kids. He doesn’t expect to collect more. His racing days are over. Save, perhaps, for his stirring one against Father Time.

“Like I tell everybody,” says Bulkley, “go day by day. There’s not much you can do about getting older.“

Years ago, he told Marjorie that if he lived to be 85, that would OK. She chuckles at the recollection.

One hundred years. Now that is particularly noteworthy.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email ttrower@mailtribune.com