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Giving Greyhounds a run for their money

| Saturday, April 28, 2012, 4:25 a.m.

Individually, they were Maurice "Tubby" Rice, Eugene "Kiddo" Crabtree, Ron Minnie and Felton R. Brown. Collectively, they comprised one of the best 880-yard relay teams in Mon Valley track and field history.

"We competed in a dozen or so meets during the regular season and didn't lose a race," Rice said of the 1956 Monessen High School quartet. "We were just four kids who liked to run and enjoyed the competition that track and field provided.

"I don't think we set out to go undefeated because there were a lot of great runners in the Mon Valley and elsewhere that year. But as each meet came along and we continued to win ... well, we took a lot of pride in what was happening."

Reminders of that success and other special times in the lives of the longtime friends arose when Crabtree died recently at Swedish Medical Center in Englewood, Col., near Denver.

The success of the 1956 relay team was significant because it came in only the second year it participated in organized competition.

Monessen revived track and field as an informal program in 1954. In March 1955 the Monessen School Board added the sport to its varsity roster and named Clifford Jones as coach.

"Many of us were playing baseball (at MHS) in the spring before that," Rice said. "There wasn't much of anything else to do in the way of spring (scholastic) sports then. So when they made it a varsity program we decided to give it a try. Kiddo and I played football, Ron and Felton played basketball and we enjoyed running. It was a perfect fit."

While 1955 was a so-so year for the new Monessen track team, the Greyhounds were off and running at a good pace the following spring.

The 880-relay team made its presence felt early by posting one of Monessen's six first-place finishes in a triangular meet with perennial power Donora and Bethlehem Joint.

In the Big Six Meet at Charleroi Stadium on May 1, the 880 unit became part of history by covering the distance in 1:33.5 to top the previous mark of 1:35.4 set by Donora in the initial Big Six competition in 1951.

The foursome dominated the event by finishing 30 yards ahead of its nearest challenger. Brown garnered top individual honors as he also won the 100 and 220 dashes. Other Monessen firsts were posted by Donnell, whose kick in the gun lap pushed him far in front in the mile run, and the mile relay team of George Allen, Crabtree, Minnie and Rice.

"This meet proves we have the top quality even if we don't have the quantity," Jones told The Monessen Daily Independent.

The Greyhounds won their first dual meet on May 3 by defeating Jeannette 65-45.

At the Westmoreland County Meet on May 11 at Latrobe they remained undefeated with a time of 1:33.2 to qualify for the WPIAL championships. Brown also kept his unbeaten status intact by winning the 100 and 220. Rice was second in the 100 while Minnie and Rice were second and third, respectively, behind Brown in the 220.

Shut out of state meet

Dreams of a trip to the PIAA state finals at Penn State were shattered when the relay team finished fifth in the WPIAL meet at Connellsville. But coach Cliff Jones offered no alibis.

"The boys simply got off to a bad start and couldn't make up the deficit," Jones said.

He also refused to blame the relay loss and setbacks for Brown, Minnie and Rice in the 100 and 220 on the Monessen High prom's being held the night before.

"We knew going in that the competition would be tough," Minnie said of the relay challenge. "German Township had a great anchor that year and there also were other good runners in the field. We posted a good time but it wasn't good enough."

New Castle won the 880 relay at 1:33.2, a time equaled or bettered by Monessen during the regular season.

Brown and Minnie credited Rice and Crabtree for providing the spark to the quartet's success.

"Our 880 relay team was one of the finest at that time," Brown said. "Tubby ran the first leg, Kiddo the second, Ron the third and I was the anchor. In all modesty, the reason I feel we were so successful is because, although Kiddo was not as fast as the rest of us, we never lost any ground when he got the baton. He was a steady, strong and focused runner. By the time he handed the baton to Ron, no ground was lost. Ron was extremely fast and by the time he passed to me we were off and running."

Minnie agreed.

"Kiddo was not a burner in terms of speed," Minnie said. "Felton, Tubby and I could beat each other on any given day, although Felton was faster than us. But Gene was 'Mr. Reliable.' We knew that if Tubby gave us the lead on the first leg, Kiddo was going to maintain it. He was a consistent and determined runner, someone we could count on."

Classmate David J. Friedland remembers the "commitment and precision" of Crabtree, Rice, Minnie and Brown.

"I went out for track in my senior year but I was only a step above manager," Friedland, an adjunct instructor at Delaware Technical and Community College's Georgetown campus in Delaware, said laughingly. "I remember when Mr. Jones would make us run the 100-yard dash in practice and how those guys were head and shoulders above us. Felton, Tubby, Ron and Kiddo would already be walking back down the field when I was at the 10-yard line. They would be only steps apart. They constantly practiced passing the baton and getting their steps down to a rhythm that looked like a perfected dance."

Successful careers

Minnie, a first team All-State basketball player at Monessen in 1956, was the recipient of the 1955-56 Weiss Trophy awarded to the outstanding senior athlete at MHS. He and Brown continued their track excellence at Westminster College in New Wilmington. Both were inducted into the Titans Sports Hall of Fame in 2006.

A four-year letterman and captain of the 1960 Westminster team, Brown established records in the 100- and 220-yard dashes that still stand. He ran the 100 in 9.5 seconds and the 220 in 20.9 as a sophomore and won Tri-State Championships in his freshman and sophomore years.

He worked 20 years in various corporate positions and then taught in the Plano School District in Texas for 15 years before moving to Tennessee in 2008. He returned to the classroom as a seventh grade history teacher in Tennessee last fall.

Minnie also set school and district marks as a hurdler in track and field and was a key player on the 1959 and 1960 Titans basketball teams that participated in the NAIA national tournament.

A former member of Monessen School Board, he retired after a long career in industrial relations and counseling.

Rice enlisted in the U.S. Air Force after graduating from Monessen High School and served six years in the military. He later worked for the Department of Commerce in Harrisburg before beginning a career that spanned 36 years and seven months with the U.S. Postal Service in Monessen.

Fond Farewell

Eugene "Kiddo" Crabtree was a man of many interests and talents.

Loyal, reliable and committed may best describe him, especially to those who were deeply saddened by his death.

"It was a shocker, no question about that," said Maurice "Tubby" Rice of Monessen of Crabtree's passing at age 70 on April 20. "I had talked with Kiddo a couple of times about a week before. I called to tell him about the death of another friend.

"He said he felt fine and reminded me to take care of myself, which was typical of Kiddo because he truly cared about other people. He was in good spirits. When I received word about Kiddo's death I couldn't believe it."

Felton R. Brown and Ron Minnie offered similar sentiments.

"I was heartbroken ... Kiddo and I had been friends for over 60 years," said Brown, who lives in the Memphis suburb of Germantown, Tenn. "We went to elementary, junior high and high school together. He was a warm, loyal and true friend."

Minnie, who lives in Pittsburgh, said Crabtree was "more than a friend."

"He was like a brother to all of us," Minnie said. "We had a very close class (at Monessen High School) in 1956 and Kiddo was well-liked by everyone because of his personality. I can't remember him ever being angry or having harsh words about anyone. He was so mild mannered, nothing upset him. He was someone you could count on for advice or comfort, he gave us strength. We lost a very good friend, an exceptional man."

Crabtree, the son of the late Eugene and Pauline Florence Crabtree, graduated from Monessen High School in 1956.

He attended Paul Smith Junior College in Saranac, N.Y. and received a degree in education from Eastern New Mexico University in Portales, N.M.

He was a physical education teacher at Kirtland Air Force Base Elementary School in Albuquerque, president of the Albuquerque Athletic Association and a Scout leader with Boy Scouts of America.

"Kiddo loved the outdoors and nature," said his brother, Eric Crabtree, a businessman in Denver. "He was an Eagle Scout and was head of the Order of the Arrow in Pennsylvania. He served as an instructor at such Boy Scout camps as Conestoga, Delmont and Philmont and enjoyed leading wilderness trips."

In 1964 Crabtree was one of 22 teachers in the nation chosen to conduct a workshop for teachers at the University of Freetown in Sierra Leone, West Africa.

In 1967 Crabtree extended his foreign service when he was selected by the NEA's Committee on International Relations to participate with the organization's Teach Corps team in Sierra Leone.

"Kiddo valued those experiences in Sierra Leone," his brother said. "He was proud to be selected. He appreciated the opportunity to share his knowledge and, at the same, learn from those with whom he was working."

Gene and his family moved to Pagosa Springs, a suburb of Denver, in 1991 and managed family ranches there until last year. He served as an Archuleta County commissioner, was a driving force behind the highly successful county recycling programs and was chairman of the expanding Casa de los Arcos affordable housing project at the time of his death.

A former lobbyist in the New Mexico State Legislature, he also was involved in leadership positions in Colorado with Rotary, Southwest Mental Health and other community organizations and also served as a volunteer Colorado Mounted Ranger, an assignment that maintained his love of the outdoors.

Crabtree also enjoyed model trains and, according to Maurice Rice, "was like a little kid with the (railroad) displays he had in his home."

More than anything, he loved the time he spent with his family -- Susan, his wife of 31 years; daughters Sonrisa Crabtree, Arianne Carroll and Nisse Edward, and grandchildren Douglas and Jaylen Case and Brelin and Sydney Carroll.

Crabtree savored keeping in touch with his former running mates.

"It was amazing how they remained so tight over all those years," Eric Crabtree said. "You know how it is ... people graduate from high school, go away to college, get jobs and raise families far away from home and lose touch with each other. That never happened with Kiddo, Tubby, Ron and Felton."

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