By Lee Walter '99
“The Group” – the final installment in the series – is a close-up look at the central characters from the cross country and track & field program from the 1970s who have maintained a bond for nearly half a century: how they got to Eastern, their roles on the teams and their accomplishment, and where their journey from Eastern has carried them. Coach John Keleher also provides a short commentary on each of his former athletes. Note that an in-depth profile of Trenton Wright was included in Part 3 of this series (‘The Mouthpiece and Ringleader’).
Special thanks to Coach Keleher and Eastern’s “Legends of Running” whose cooperation and input was vital in the production of this four-part series and without whom Eastern Cross Country and Track & Field may not exist on the Eastern campus today.
Note: Links to first three parts listed at bottom of this story.
Steve Gates- Came to Eastern in 1971 out of Manchester (Manchester H.S.)… Earned a B.A. in Mathematics in 1975… Inducted into the E-Club Hall of Fame in 1989, he was an original member of both cross country varsity (1971) and track & field varsity (1975) teams… Competed in national championship meets in cross country in 1974 and track & field (running a 4:09.1 in the mile) in 1975… Won the New England championship in both cross country and the mile as a senior in 1974-75… Current Eastern record holder in 1500m (3:50.7 in 1974) and the mile (4:09.1 in 1975)… Holds current record for fastest finish by a Manchester resident in the Manchester Road Race, running the 4.748-mile course in a time of 22:59 in 1980… Served as Honorary Co-Chairman of the 79th Manchester Road Race in 2015, after already appearing in 46 of his hometown road races… Served several terms on Manchester’s Board of Directors and has been very active with several local civic groups and projects…
Coach Keleher on Gates- “Very talented, once he put his mind to his workouts, he was terrific. First highly-recognized runner in program history. Strength was as an 800m to one mile runner.”
Guy Glover- Came to Eastern in 1971 out of Stamford (Rippowam H.S.)… Earned degrees in Sociology and Education in 1975… Now retired, he spent time teaching and coaching following his time at Eastern, while also working for Aetna, Boys Club of Waterbury and the State of Connecticut… Described his favorite memory of Eastern as his coach and teammates still talking about the things he did in cross country and track & field… Felt a strong bond with his teammates because they all spent time at each other’s houses and that nobody was ever out of place when they were together…
Coach Keleher on Glover- “He was a decent athlete coming out of high school. Definitely the ‘character’ of the group. Had a range of ability from a quarter-mile to three miles, using good foot speed and endurance.”
Rene Charland- Came to Eastern in 1972 out of Tolland (Tolland H.S.)… Majored in Mathematics, earning his degree in 1976… Following a roughly 40-year career in the insurance business, he is now enjoying retirement… Feels like the group bonded strongly because they spent so much time together, got along well, lived together in many cases, and helped get the track program off the ground… Also gives Trenton Wright a ton of credit as the glue who keeps everyone together now… A top moment of his time at Eastern: After Wright wrote an article in the Campus Lantern regarding alcohol abuse on campus (though the drinking age at the time was 18, which allowed students to drink on campus if of age), the team found it ironic since Wright was always present when the team was ‘socializing’. Remembers Wright getting a little ‘overserved’ one evening and the team rolling him around in the snow and yelling about him being the guy who wrote the article…
Coach Keleher on Charland- “He had an unbelievable gait and I was surprised he could run at all because it was so unusual, his arms were all over the place. He got every last bit out of himself and would always ask what was next when he finished his workout or event.”
Steve Lord- Came to Eastern in 1972 out of Salem (St. Bernard H.S.)… Majored in Sociology and Education, earning his degree in 1976… Originally came to Eastern to be a part of the fledgling Biology program before switching majors… Spent many years as a social worker and educator with children with disabilities and has dabbled as a stand-up comedian. Now semi-retired, he lives in Indianapolis… Feels the group bonded because they helped start the programs from scratch in those early years, fighting to become a track team and for recognition. The amount of time spent together getting through workouts was also a big factor… Remembers one particular race where he finished 14th overall in a quadrangle race, but was still 11th on his own team.
Coach Keleher on Lord- “Very good sprinter who would participate in the fall to keep in shape.”
Tim Quinn- Came to Eastern in 1973 out of Hartford (South Catholic H.S.)… Earned a degree in 1977… Inducted into the E-Club Hall of Fame in 2007… was a major building block for the foundation of both the Cross Country and Track & Field programs… Twice qualified for national competition in Cross Country… Also qualified once for national competition in track & field… placed fourth in a field of 300 at the 1975 Codfish Bowl… Current Eastern record-holder in the outdoor 3 mile (14:37.2 in 1975), outdoor 6 mile (30:05.0 in 1976), and indoor 2 mile (9:40.5 in 1973)…
Coach Keleher on Quinn- “He was a top guy on his high school team. More of a long distance runner and a tough competitor. I would have to keep him from running too much. A great person.”
Eric Williamson- Came to Eastern in 1972 out of Willington (Windham H.S.)… Earned degrees in History and English in 1976… Currently an adjunct professor at both UConn and Eastern… Spent a lot of time travelling and holding odd jobs as well… Favorite time at Eastern was as a junior when Eastern started to beat teams they had not been able to defeat before… Says the group formed a strong bond through the experiences that they shared that were very important. Gives Trenton Wright the majority of the credit for keeping the group together and that all of the guys still have a shared interest in cross country… Emphasized that the physical and mental endurance learned from cross country has helped him immensely when he travels to refugee camps in Kenya.
Coach Keleher on Williamson- “He ran the best race of his life with a concussion after falling down during a race at Plymouth State. He got up and kept running and never realized he finished. Eric was an over-achiever and a hard competitor.”
Vin Pillari- Came to Eastern in 1973 out of Norwich (St. Bernard H.S.), largely because Eastern was within commuting distance... Majored in Biology, earning his degree in 1977… The same weekend he was to receive his college degree, he was participating in the nationals (for the second year in a row) in the Midwest, earning All-American status with a third-place finish in the shot put… Following Pillari’s events, Keleher drove all night to get him back to campus just in time for the graduation ceremony… Still holds the Eastern record in the shot at 54-11 in 1976… Inducted into the E-Club Hall of Fame in 1990… Feels the group bonded because of starting out as a (track) club before converting to varsity status…
Coach Keleher on Pillari- “The only non-cross country guy in the group, he was the first solid performer and regional competitor in track & field. He was very smart and analytical about his event.”
Rich Zadroga- Came to Eastern in 1974 out of Middletown (Xavier H.S.), following in the footsteps of other Xavier/Middletown runners that he knew… Majored in Psychology, earning his degree in 1978, before going on to a career in teaching and coaching at Windham Tech (which borders the Eastern campus)… Now retired from teaching, he is finishing his coaching career at Tolland H.S. this spring, working with the pole vaulters… Feels like the group bonded because it shared a common experience and was always hanging out together, socializing after weekend meets, especially… Most memorable moment was during the big snowstorm of 1978, when everyone was locked up in the dorms and there were no classes. Remembers everyone on campus walking to the package stores and grocery stores, buying up everything on the shelves. Also remembers a big snowball fight when all the cars needed to be moved for plowing of the parking lots…
Coach Keleher on Zadroga- “He has done more for track & field and cross country in the state of Connecticut than I would have thought possible during his time at Eastern. Not a very serious athlete at the time.”
Bob McKay- Came to Eastern in 1975 out of Hebron (RHAM H.S.), where he was friends with Keleher’s brother… Chose Eastern due to the size of the school, so he could be a bigger fish in a smaller pond, preferring the individual attention he could get in classes… Now semi-retired, McKay spent time working with Travelers, Pratt & Whitney and Stanley/Black & Decker… Credits Coach Keleher for successfully building the team and camaraderie as to why the group bonded so well. Also credits Wright for being the leader of the pack in keeping everyone updated and getting together… While at Eastern, was into politics and once criticized then- Governor Ella Grasso for planned budget cuts as she was going to be speaking at Eastern.
Coach Keleher on McKay- “A hard-working guy, good guy, did the best he could with the ability he had.”
Pete Nystrom- Came to Eastern in 1975 out of Norwich (Norwich Free Academy), largely because his parents grew up in Willimantic, and his brother was playing baseball at Eastern… Majored in Early Childhood Education, earning a degree in 1979… has served in public office for 29 years in several different seats, including Mayor of Norwich, a position he is running for again… Of the group of alumni, he says it’s not just a group of people, but a family… Says that Guy Glover took him under his wing and treated him above the role of a teammate, starting a strong friendship that lasts to this day… Of his time at Eastern, he said he grew up here and that making a speech at graduation may well have led him to his career in public office as the July following graduation he ran for his first seat and won that election…
Coach Keleher on Nystrom- “His range as a runner was from short-distance to long-distance. He was a good, hard-working kid.”