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THE LEGEND LIVES ON : Even though Steve Prefontaine died almost 10 years ago, the memory of his life and controversy surrounding his death are as alive as ever

May 06, 1985|GERALD SCOTT | Times Staff Writer

EUGENE, Ore. — Pre lives.

Nowhere is the legacy of Steve Prefontaine more acute than in the Pacific Northwest, where in the early 1970s he captured the hearts and minds of his fellow citizens as readily as he did headlines and first-place finishes.

In his native Coos Bay, they've built a memorial to him and named streets after him. The biggest day of the year for that small coastal town is the Prefontaine Memorial 10-kilometer Run, when every September a thousand runners from across the country labor in the footsteps of the man that many believe was America's best distance runner ever.

They remember him, too, here in the Emerald Valley, between the Cascade and Coastal mountain ranges, where Prefontaine's brief but brilliant career first flourished at the University of Oregon.

His name is magic, whether in visiting his old dorm room at Douglass Hall--"You mean Pre used to live here ? Awwright!"--or on the jogging trail named after him in the city center.

Jogging along Pre's Trail, part of which winds its way along a tributary of the Willamette River, one almost expects to find the short, stocky runner with the long hair and mustache barrelling by as you approach the finish.

Such an apparition certainly seems feasible, considering the hold that he still has on this community, a decade after his death. Ten years ago this month, Prefontaine died in a car accident at age 24, yet to the people here his presence has hardly diminished.

The week leading up to the annual Prefontaine Classic track meet June 1 will be Prefontaine Week, with his memorabilia on display. The meet will feature Mary Decker Slaney, Joaquim Cruz, and Czechoslovakian Jarmila Kratochvilova.

All that might seem excessive for someone who never won an Olympic medal or set a world record, but it would be a mistake to underestimate the hold that Prefontaine has on this city and state.

The early temptation is to compare him with James Dean, the patron saint of all those who have died before their time, but Pre's People--the aggregate of his family, friends, supporters, and townsfolk--resent the label because to some it can carry a negative connotation.

There are , however, some eerie comparisons between the two. Both came from small towns and gave new meaning to the phrase meteoric rise; both died at 24; both died on the 30th of the month (Dean on Sept. 30, 1955; Prefontaine on May 30, 1975); both died in accidents in their sports cars; and both died with their best work clearly ahead of them.

"He was a great and colorful champion, popular with friends, track fans, and everyone who has admired his intense dedication to excellence. Time, for all its claimed healing effects, has not done much to ease the loss of Steve Prefontaine. He remains sorely missed."

--Inscription on a plaque introducing the Prefontaine memorabilia collection in Coos Bay.

Coos Bay, 116 miles south and west of Eugene, is a city of 14,000 with the ambiance of a small town in the midwest.

And, like most small towns, whether by cause or effect, the fortunes of the local high school athletic teams are tied to the town's economic fortunes.

In the 1950s and 1960s, when, as the locals claim, more lumber products passed through the port of Coos Bay than any other in the world, Marshfield High was state champion in football three years running, and in '59 and '60 the basketball team, led by Mel Counts, finished second in the state.

Coos Bay is the kind of place where athletics is behind only cleanliness, godliness, and the Douglas fir tree in esteem.

It's the kind of place where at the Egyptian theater--Coos Bay's last picture show--Marshfield High team pictures are given a place of honor in the lobby.

It's the kind of place where the Egyptian's former owner, known as The Kernel (as in popcorn), had license plates that read GO PRE and keeps a tape of the radio broadcast of that thrilling 75-71 overtime win against The Dalles in the state basketball semifinal in 1952.

It's the kind of place where the son of a carpenter and his German war bride might emerge to become the best distance runner the country had ever seen.

It's the kind of place where it was appropriate for the pallbearers to wear track sweats and the hearse to take one last victory lap around the Marshfield High track when its favorite son came home for the last time.

It's the kind of place that remembers Steve Prefontaine.

There is the Prefontaine Memorial, a simple but compelling cement sculpture designed by architect Stuart Woods, a contemporary of Prefontaine. It's located next to the Chamber of Commerce, and a copy is being built in Coos Bay's sister city of Chochi, Japan.

"It's different, but then he was different," said Walt McClure, Prefontaine's high school coach.

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