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Numbers count at the Nebraska state track and field championship. If there's a single truism of this grand event, it's that dreams are achieved in a hundredth of a second and medals are awarded for a fraction of an inch.
Dave Dostal knows this as well as anyone, and he knows it because of a significant number of his own: 42. That's how many years Dostal has volunteered at the state track meet, supervising the shot put. When his son Jay turned 5 years old, he started bringing him along. Today, Jay is 35, the principal at Kearney High School and volunteer heir apparent to his dad's post.
“Now he's in charge of the shot put,” said the senior Dostal, though he hasn't fully relinquished control. “I told Jay, when the Kearney kids come up here, you can't be cheering.”
The state track meet at Omaha Burke High School is not an understaffed event. If it runs smoothly, it's due largely to the efforts of several hundred volunteers, many of whom have been part of it longer than any of this year's athletes have been alive, and several of whom came to volunteer through their own careers as coaches and educators.
Among the veterans is an even more exclusive group: a handful of individuals who have volunteered for all 42 years of the meet's history. Collectively, they are the event's institutional memory.
They remember the years when times were captured by hand rather than with electronic devices built into the tracks. They remember when results were hand-delivered to the press box, then run down to the medals tent, sometimes through mud. They remember rainy days and cold days and days so hot you could almost smell the skin sizzling in the stands.
“I think a lot of what we do, people take for granted, and that's OK,” said Bob Whitehouse, a 68-year-old member of the 42 brigade, adding that expectations are high due to decades of running a successful event.
Whitehouse is a former high school principal and athletic director and a current member of the University of Nebraska Board of Regents. He revels in the overall pageantry of the state track meet — from the athletes, coaches and parents to the union of staffers working around the clock and behind the scenes to make a first-class experience.
“It's more than just a meet,” he said.
On Friday morning, as this weekend's competition got underway, Whitehouse walked the grounds, reuniting with his fellow 42ers. To the north of the football stadium, he connected with Dave Dostal, who looked on as Lincoln Southwest star and Husker football recruit Josh Banderas picked up the shot put.
Whitehouse pointed to Dostal as an example of the continuity that longtime staffers bring to the event.
“It becomes a matter of expertise in areas, and I think people respect that,” he said.
Down on the field, he ran into Greg Rice, one of the younger 42ers at age 55, and then Larry Jacobson, who initially recruited Rice to volunteer so many years ago.
In the medical tent at the south end of the football field, Whitehouse found Dr. Richard Pitner, 78, who has been working the event long enough to know that injuries are much more likely to come from the stands than the field.
“Probably the most common thing is sunburn,” Pitner said.
Out of the sun and in the press box — Whitehouse's post — half a dozen volunteers with nearly two centuries of experience among them tended to any and all media needs, taking requests for coffee, power cords and a trash receptacle, all in a matter of minutes.
“We've got 100 years between the three of us,” said Susan Harr (35 years), pointing to Charlotte Belitz (32) and Susan Swanson (33).
“We've got 84,” Whitehouse said, nudging Dusty Decker, the 79-year-old former athletic director at Omaha North.
High above the stadium, in a long, narrow corridor sitting above the stadium's box office, a row of staffers sat looking out over the field. Two people were in charge of reviewing photographs of the finish line. Another was responsible for constantly updating the scoreboard, the one that until a few years ago hung over Rosenblatt Stadium. A few others tracked the results of all contests, checking and double-checking names and numbers before dispatching the final word to the press box and medals tent down below.
“The brains of the whole outfit,” Whitehouse said, before stepping back outside and looking over the stadium from the event's highest perch.
It was still early in the day, but humidity made 80 degrees feel closer to 90. After a frigid season for spring sports, the heat was more than welcome.
“The conditions have not been anywhere near ideal or fun,” Whitehouse said. “These kids deserve a day like this.”
It is, of course, their event.
But for the many volunteers who take pride in putting on a good show themselves, who proudly recite the number of years attached to their service, it's something else.
“This is a reunion, too,” Whitehouse said. “You become friends for life. For those of us who have done it for years, it becomes family.”
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