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Monday, June 11, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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High School Sports

End of a track era: Beckwith retires after 29 years at Garfield

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Fred Beckwith almost missed the 1997 track season at Garfield High School after he fell off a ladder while updating the track record board in the school gymnasium months earlier.

The first and second vertebrae in his neck had to be fused and now he can only move his head left or right a few inches.

He can easily look up to see the record board and it speaks proudly of his 29 years - 28 as boys head coach - at one of the state's top track programs. The Bulldogs won or shared six state big-school state titles with Beckwith at the helm and also ran off with 18 Metro League championships.

The strangest state title was the 1988 crown shared with Lakes after a series of events too strange for fiction - the power failed at Lincoln Bowl, truck and auto lights illuminated the field for the 1,600-meter relay. Then Garfield's leadoff runner was disqualified for running out-of-lane in the semi-darkness.

At the team awards ceremony, the Lakes coach handed the trophy to Beckwith and said, "Here, you guys deserve this." Despite the generosity, Lakes and Garfield remained co-champions.

Bulldog athletes won 22 individual state titles under Beckwith and nine relay crowns, including the 400-meter relay six consecutive years from 1984-89.

Beckwith is called "Coach Beck" at Garfield and his former athletes talk of him as though he were a walking accolade.

Ross Flowers, who won the 110-meter hurdles at state in 1988 and 1989 and then became an All-American and Pac-10 champion at UCLA, said Beckwith "was like a father figure on the track."

"He was very patient," said Flowers, now a Ph.D. and a counselor at California-Davis, where part of his clientele is athletes. "He knew how to motivate high-school athletes."

He knew how to train them, too.

Mark Phillips, who still holds the state 300-meter hurdle record (36.57 seconds) in 1986 and ran on the state-record 400 relay team (41.34) the same year, said Beckwith "was the best conditioning coach I ever had. I had a lot of coaches, too, including some so-called world-class coaches."

Phillips said wisdom from Beckwith helped him coach Holy Names to three consecutive state 3A girls titles.

"Some of the strategies I used at Holy Names I learned from Beck," Phillips said. For example, it isn't always the best idea to have your fastest runner be the anchor on the 400-meter relay because that runner actually covers the least distance.

Flowers and Phillips are only two of many state-champion names from the Bulldog golden age of track in the 1980s, a roll call that includes Lamar Hurd, Peller Phillips, Gerald Ellis, Jon Gary, Ernest Walker and Clyde Duncan.

Beckwith credits crackerjack assistants as playing a huge role in Bulldog success. One of them, noted track technician Frank Ahern, said of Beckwith, "There isn't a finer human being or a better role model around."

Beckwith's patience is legendary at Garfield. While he was talking with a reporter last week, someone started pounding on a malfunctioning pop machine in the gym foyer. Beckwith calmly walked out of his office and told the student in a conversational tone which staff member handled refunds.

Garfield succeeded despite one of the worst tracks in the county, a cinder track of less than 400 meters that Beckman considers responsible for "shin splints galore."

The track wasn't any better at Beckwith's alma mater, Franklin, where he was a high jumper who went on to clear 6 feet 5 (nearly 9 inches over his height) at Central Washington University.

After his final day of school on June 22, this father of three adults and grandfather of two current Bulldogs students, plans to go fishing.

"I'm going to learn to fish," he said. "I'm going to learn to enjoy the Pacific Northwest."

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