WESTFIELD, Mass. – Westfield State athletics mourns the passing of retired longtime track and field coach and movement science professor Jerry Gravel on October 8 after a long battle with cancer.
Inducted into Westfield State University's Athletic Hall of Fame in 2004, Jerry Gravel served the longest coaching tenure in the history of Westfield State College varsity athletics, and is the most successful coach in Westfield State athletics history.
"Westfield State's cross country and track & field programs, athletics department, movement science department, and our University as a whole has been enriched and positively impacted by the work and lasting legacy of the unforgettable Coach Jerry Gravel," said Westfield State University President Dr. Ramon Torrecilha.
Gravel began the men's track and field program upon his arrival to Westfield State in 1969, and developed the sport into a state and regional power before announcing his retirement in June of 1997 after 28 stellar seasons.
"It's obviously a very sad time," said Westfield State cross country coach Bill Devine '74, who was a member of coach Gravel's earliest track and field teams. "Jerry was a father figure to so many people. I lost my father at 16, and I don't think I'm alone in considering him a father figure."
"In the beginning of the program, it was scotch tape and duct tape that held it all together," said Devine. "I'd drive a van to the meet and coach would drive a station wagon, because we had that few people. But the number of the kids on the team rapidly increased under his leadership."
Gravel's teams were particularly strong in the 1980s. Westfield State won the New England Division 3 outdoor championships in 1980 and 1985, placed second in 1981 and 1988, and third in 1982 and 1989, and finished fourth in 1986. The Owls were even more dominating on the conference level. After track and field became a Mass. State Conference sport in 1972, Gravel's teams won or shared 20 of 26 championships, including 13 consecutive titles from 1983 to 1995.
Westfield's track and field teams also achieved many individual successes. Gravel guided 32 All Americans and 139 national qualifiers in NCAA Division 3 championship meets.
"He really knew what it took to make a real collegiate athletics program," said Mickey Curtis, Westfield's retired sports information director who worked with Gravel for 15 years. "It's much more than just X's and O's. He put in the time. He was a full time professor, and on Sundays I would call his office to get results from the day before, and he would always be there."
"I was a work-study student for him as a poor kid that had no money, so I was essentially Jerry's secretary as well as an athlete," said Peter Davenport '80, an entrepreneur who became very close friends with the Gravel family. "We were at a stage where we were sending out recruiting information, and while we had good athletes, we were putting together the building blocks to get the All-America caliber athletes, building that next floor of greatness."
"Through his work ethic, he projected to us what was very characteristic of people who want to succeed," said Russ Winchester '82, a two-time All-America sprinter under coach Gravel, and now a vice president at TransAmerica financial services. "There were many examples, whether it was him out on a Sunday riding his bike alongside us on a hill workout, or literally shoveling snow off the track in the winter. He was always there for us, and the extra work, it seemed like no one ever was injured because of all the extra work we would put in."
"Track runners are generally self-inspired," said Davenport. "Anything over a quarter of a mile and you have to be dedicated, but he inspired us more. I remember going on 'indian runs' where the last runner had to pass the first runner, and Jerry would be trailing along on his bicycle and he'd ride up on you and you wanted to run away from him. He'd keep telling us they same old, terrible jokes again and again, and he'd laugh so hard that you couldn't help but laugh along with him."
Gravel also began the Westfield State men's cross country program in 1969 and built it into a conference perennial power, serving as the head coach for a total of 15 years.
Gravel also was a highly respected faculty member in the movement science department during his long tenure at Westfield State. Upon his retirement, he was honored with faculty emeritus status as an associate professor of movement science.
"We still talk about Jerry all the time," said Dave Laing, who taught in the movement science department with Gravel for years. "He had a great rapport with his students, and a great sense of humor. Once his students realized where he was coming from, and his way of presenting, they really engaged in his classes, and Jerry loved teaching."
"He was as dedicated to his teaching as he was to his coaching," said Dr. Carol Persson, who taught with Gravel in the movement science department before later becoming a vice president at Westfield State. "I was privileged to witness first-hand his ability to make the complex principles of motion understandable to the students in his Kinesiology classes. The students loved him because he made the most difficult concepts understandable through the use of real life analogies and comparisons. He also never permitted his students to give up. He continued to work with and encourage them until the proverbial light bulb went off."
Gravel retired to Oceanside, Calif., near San Diego, with his wife Joan, where he continued to teach as a professor of Kinesiology at MiraCosta Community College, learned to surf, and enjoyed hiking and outdoor activities. A lifelong learner and teacher, he adopted Facebook as a primary communication tool with his scores of alumni, and developed a website for his fitness book and to distribute workouts to the athletes with whom he continued to work.
In 2009, the University named the outdoor track in his honor, with a strong push from his former student-athletes, who provided testimony to the board of trustees and created an endowed fund which supports the track and field programs.
In his formal retirement from Westfield State, Gravel maintained close contact with the University, and his loyal band of alumni. He continued to consult with the Owls' cross country and track and field coaches, as well as developing conditioning and training programs for his alumni. Gravel was deeply involved with the Dan Doyle Scholarship and fundraising golf tournament, the James Earley scholarship and cross country meet, and frequently returned to the college to visit friends and attend track and field, cross country and alumni events, most recently for a reunion of his former athletes in October of 2018, when his 1980 men's track and field team was inducted as a team into the Westfield State Athletic Hall of Fame.
"Jerry probably did more work in developing relationships for Westfield State alumni than anyone," said Curtis. "He retired 20 years ago, but he never really left Westfield."
"He had an unbelievable connection with his athletes and alumni," said Laing.
"I was just thinking about how many freshmen sat in Jerry's office, crying about being a freshman and away from home, and that if that happened every year, it must have been thousands of times that he did it," said Davenport. "To put in that kind of time to help people move forward – whether it was on the track, or simply to get through another day of college. My experience was that everyone got his attention – not just the top athletes. He wasn't going home at 5:00 p.m. every night until everyone was done with their workout and discussed it."
Part of Gravel's legacy will be the Doyle scholarship fund – which is one of the Westfield State Foundation's largest scholarship funds, and makes an award to two students annually.
"At the Dan Doyle tournament this year, we had Jerry join us on Skype video, and we had 50 or 60 alumni there, and it caught some folks off guard just how sick he was at that time," said Davenport. "Mike Beard was really struck by how ill Jerry was, and in a stroke of fate he won the 50-50 raffle, and used the money to buy a plane ticket to go out to California and have one more visit with coach."
Gravel's intensity and sense of humor were a key in his connection to his athletes.
"I think the thing that pulled everyone together was that Jerry did what he thought was important," said Winchester. "The commonality was that he was a giver, and the thing that he gave the most was his time. He devoted a big part of his life to the men and women he coached. He didn't sweat the insignificant issues. He was a little bit like Bill Belichick – lets go out and do a job - and he was very competitive too. He competed against the other coaches – he didn't project it outwardly but he wanted to kick their asses."
"I remember the workouts we'd run in the steam tunnel between Parenzo and Scanlon Halls (when the weather was bad outside)," said Devine. "Thankfully I was a sprinter, but Mike Beard, Ron Manley, and Jim McGilloway would run miles and miles down there. We were a tight knit group. My relay team was my wedding party. We did everything together."
"Jerry was a taskmaster of sorts, but you could get him talking in between intervals and get a longer rest," Devine added. "I was having a great workout one day and he wondered aloud what had gotten into me. I told him I had just broken up with my girlfriend, and Jerry quipped 'You should break up with her every day.'"
The Owls' spring track and field meet was christened the "Jerry Gravel Classic" in his honor, and he returned for the event whenever possible. Devine visited with Gravel in California in August, and though weakened by chemotherapy, at the time was still planning to attend this weekend's James Earley cross country meet as he had many times before.
Gravel, a native of Attleboro, Mass., graduated from UMass-Amherst in 1960 and was a member of the track team. He spent two years in Ohio, graduating with a master's degree from Kent State and coaching high school basketball in Massillon for a year.
After serving in the Army, Gravel was the cross country and assistant track and field coach at East Islip High School on Long Island until 1966. Before coming to Westfield State in 1969, he was the field events coach at Boston State, now UMass Boston, for three years.
Coach Gravel's alumni have found success in many fields after graduating from Westfield State. Holyoke Community College athletic director Tom Stewart '88 is one of many who followed Gravel's footsteps in the area of coaching and education.
"He cared about our accomplishments," said Stewart. "But he always said that if he instilled a life-long passion for fitness, helped build good citizens and good humans, he'd done his job."
Alumni gathered to run the "Alumni Mile" at the first Jerry Gravel Classic Track meet in 2007.
Russ Winchester and Coach Gravel at the Track dedication ceremony in 2009.