“The Class A and State Record is 14 Flat Set by Tom Dakin of Whitefish Bay in 1962.”
Anybody who attended the State Track Meet from 1965 to 1979 heard PA announcer Bill Cross blast out those memorable words in that unique, booming voice. Bill had been the Bays head track coach from 1958 to 1964 and he always gave announcing Tom Dakin’s record some extra zoomph.
Long ago, I had the good fortune to ask Bill Cross about Tom Dakin and commented about that zoomph. Bill smiled broadly and said “This state has not seen another hurdler like Tom Dakin. His form was perfect. There wasn’t anything that could be done to improve it.” I then asked about the conditions when the 14.0 was run, thinking maybe there was a 30 mph wind at Tom’s back or something, since typical State Meet winning times in the years since have been much slower, not even close. Bill said “It was run on a cinder track and it was against what wind there was. He was that good.”
So how good is “that good”?
The mid-1960’s was a golden era in Wisconsin high school track and field. The Class A State Meet moved to Monona Grove in 1963, with its new state-of-the-art Grass-Tex surface. Records in all events were shattered by 1966. Except for one. Any guesses? That’s right, the 120 High Hurdles. Not only was Dakin’s 14.0 never broken, there were only a couple of 14.2’s run, with 14.3 to 14.5 being a typical State Meet winning time. And all of those marks were run on much faster tracks.
Through the 1970’s the 14.0 was never close to broken and remained the State record until the switch to meters was made in 1980. I cannot think of a superlative that does the 14.0 justice.
The State Record at 36″ was 14.1, first set by Al Dockery of Madison Central in 1947 and tied by Gene Dix of Marshfield in 1960. So in the second year after the switch to 39″, Dakin ran a time faster than anything ever run at 36″ in State Meet history. That is absolutely insane.
A benefit of the State Track Meet being held at South Stadium in Milwaukee in 1962 was that it was possible for some people from the Bay to see the meet who would not have been able to get to Madison. Two Henry Clay 7th graders, Henry Kerns and Howie Zien, plunked down their dimes and rode the city bus together to South Stadium to see the meet.
Some version of this 1962 State Meet wire service photo was printed in newspapers throughout the state. Assuming that’s the judges stand for the 100 Yard Dash in the background, this was the final hurdle. Bill Genszler of Sheboygan North had tied the State record of 14.4 (set by Dakin in 1961) in the trials, and had also finished second to Dakin the year before. That’s a rather large lead over a guy who ran fast enough to win the State title in most years.
When the switch from yards to meters came in 1980, the WIAA made the unfortunate decision to throw its first 85 years of running event history in the trash and started over with its records for running events. Fortunately, and to its credit, the Whitefish Bay track and field program understood that what happened in the past mattered and recognized converted times as records.
There is no conversion for times run in the 120 Yard High Hurdles to the 110 Meter High Hurdles. Or, more accurately, there is a conversion and it is 0. The event is the same distance.
The Wisconsin State record as I type this is 14.04 from 2014, run at the La Crosse Speedway where massive sprinting and hurdling PR’s are handed out like cotton candy at the county fair. Comparing the 14.0 run on cinders to the 14.04 run on a state-of-the art surface over 50 years later gets murky. Dakin’s 14.0 was hand-timed vs. FAT (automatic) timing, first introduced at the State Meet in 1979. A recognized convention is to add .24 to hand-times. I don’t agree with that in general and certainly not in this case. Nobody knows what the FAT time would have been at the 1962 State Meet. The best, experienced timers anticipated the smoke, so adding anything, much less a full .24, is guesswork at best.
Another issue when comparing hand to automatic times is that the convention in the hand-time era was to always round up to the nearest tenth. 10 second face watches were the standard and you could easily tell the time to the nearest hundredth or two. So Dakin’s time was 14.0 at the worst and could be anywhere from 13.91 to 14.00.
But cinders vs. the LaCrosse Speedway, give me a break. There is no comparison, the conditions were not in the same universe.
Some additional background on Dakin’s senior outdoor season is that he only competed in three meets. Sectionals, State and then Suburban. He had a sore back early in the outdoor season, so only the end-of-season meets were in the cards.
Here are some State Meet previews:
When they were in the blocks for the State 120 High Hurdle final, Dakin was in no way the favorite. As said before, Bill Genzsler of Sheboygan North had tied Dakin’s 14.4 State record from 1961 in the trials and had to be the favorite.
I believe the sore back caused Tom to not only not win the State title in the 180 Low Hurdles (he finished third), but prevented him from breaking the State record in that event as well, due to not being in peak shape. No worries on the record front from a Bay team perspective, however, since the great Paul Priebe took care of that in 1965 and Howie Zien permanently put it to rest in 1966.
At the Suburban Conference meet at Hart Park the week after State, Tom proved the State Meet wasn’t a fluke, winning the Highs in 14.2.
And he ran a fine 19.5 in winning the 180 Low Hurdles. 19.7 had won at State the week before. The State record at the time was 19.6.
Tom Dakin ended his Bay career with the back-to-back State titles with State record times, as well as three third place finishes at State. He was third in the High Hurdles as a sophomore in 1960 and finished third in the Lows as a junior and senior. The High Hurdles is a tough, physical, technical event. Sophomores even getting to State in the High Hurdles, much less getting to the final and placing high, is not a common thing and is in itself an indicator of supreme quality.
And, yeah, he was good at the Suburban level as well. Dakin won a staggering 11 individual Suburban titles and added with two relays gives him 13 total, which is third in Suburban Conference history. The 11 individual titles is tied at the top with Jerry Casey of Greendale and Art Sanders of Wauwatosa West. Missing the Suburban Relays as a senior likely cost Tom two relays wins, and maybe a win in the High Jump, where his PR was at least 6-1 3/8. He is one of six athletes to pull off a Suburban Triple — three individual titles at the Suburban Indoor or Outdoor.
Along with Bay classmate Brian Bergemann, Tom went to Wisconsin. He suffered a catastrophic knee injury in November of his freshman year. Completely torn ligaments above and below the knee in his lead leg and not repairable with early-1960’s surgical techniques if he wanted to continue to compete or possibly even walk comfortably. So Tom strengthened the muscles around the knee to the point where they could hold the knee joint in place and resumed competing. Are you kidding me?
Unbelievably, Tom won the Big Ten Indoor 70 Yard High Hurdles as a sophomore in 1964 and then finished second in the 120 Yard High Hurdles (42″) at the Big Ten Outdoors the same year.
I can still hear the pain and sorrow in the voice of Bill Cross when he said that Tom Dakin wasn’t close to being the same athlete after the injury. We’ll never know what Tom could have accomplished. He competed well at times his junior and senior seasons, but battled various injuries and didn’t, to my knowledge, place again at a Big Ten meet.
I don’t know much about Tom’s life. I do know that he lived in New York City and have heard rumors that he was 1) an executive at a New York advertising agency and 2) a dancer. If there is a God in heaven, both are true.
Tom was inducted into the Wisconsin Track Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2013. Here is a picture from the award ceremony. Tom is on the far left:
What Bill Cross said a long time ago — that Tom Dakin is the greatest hurdler this state has ever seen — is still absolutely true in 2020.
Tom Dakin is one of the truly great athletes in the history of Whitefish Bay High School. Maybe the best.
These are additional insights directly from Tom Dakin that are paraphrased by me. They came from from email exchanges and phone calls.
— Tom’s love of track came from the Cumberland/Henry Clay/Richards tracks meets in 5th and 6th grade, with the addition of other teams in 7th and 8th grade. He won the hurdles in those meets all four years. It made him feel that he was good at something.
— In school Tom tested well, but generally had trouble with the routine due to having ADD. Memorizing things was always a problem. Grades weren’t all that good.
— Tom grew seven inches from spring of 8th grade to fall of freshman year, where he was 5-11 and 118. By sophomore year he was just short of 6-2 and 135. He didn’t grow any more and ended up at 165 as a senior.
— After finishing 3rd at State in the 120 High Hurdles as a sophomore, he decided to give up football and concentrate on track. Tom loved football and it was a tough decision, but getting grant-in-aid money (as it was called back then) was important, because while Tom’s parents provided a stable home, help with college wasn’t in the cards.
— Tom struggled with self-image, self-confidence and trying to fit in with his peers during high school. In other words, he was 100% normal.
— Bill Cross read the confidence issues and nurtured Tom mentally much more than physically as track coach during Tom’s career at the Bay.
— The Bay coaching staff never used times or marks as goals. The discussion was always about preparing, competing and winning.
— Tom had an easy transition from 36″ to 39″ hurdles in 1961. He remembers little about the 1961 120 High Hurdle final, but believes he won it by a lot.
— At the Wisconsin Rapids Invite indoors in Tom’s senior season, the high jump pit was sand. Tom landed directly on his back and “popped a disk”. That injury significantly impacted the season and has affected him periodically for the rest of his life.
— Tom’s hurdle form was almost entirely natural and instinctive, so he never had to practice it much and easily got ramped up outdoors from the back injury.
— Tom has three specific memories of the 1962 120 High Hurdle final. 1) The father of one of the other competitors came up to talk to him just before the race. Tom interpreted that as psych gamesmanship and was furious. The result was carrying extra intensity into the blocks. 2) He jumped into the air at the finish rather than running through the tape. He has no idea why he did that, had never done it before and never did it after. Bill Cross thought that it hurt the time. 3) Bill Cross had the time at 13.9.
— He badly wanted to win the 180 Low Hurdle final to complete the double. The only time he ran the 180 Lows on the curve was at the State Meet in 1961 and 1962, otherwise it was on the straight. He “tore off” the back brace he wore for the 120 Highs and concentrated on getting out of the curve intact. He came out of the curve with the lead, but felt himself tire and simply couldn’t hold on to the lead due to not being in good enough shape.
— Tom wanted to run faster than 14.0 at the Suburban Outdoor the week after the State Meet, but it was not to be. 14.2 is still a fine time, obviously, as was the 19.5 in winning the Lows.
— Tom’s recruiting visit to Wisconsin was the weekend in the 61-62 basketball season that the Badgers put an 86-67 shellacking on Ohio State at the Field House. The Buckeyes, led by Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek, took their only loss of the season.
— Tom had about 10 college offers, but Wisconsin was the only one of those he was interested in. He wanted to go to USC, but that offer never came. During the outdoor season he was busy dealing with life, track and the back injury, so he kind of ignored the whole thing. Tom committed to Wisconsin late in the season around the time of the State Meet and was grateful the offer was still available.
— The grant-in-aid, combined with the income from working construction in the summers was enough to get him through college.
— The weight work Tom went through to get back from the knee injury went against the accepted wisdom of the time. Sprinters and hurdlers should not do weight work because it would bulk them up and slow them down. Tom came out of his rehab at 185 and felt he was faster. In a time trial with the Badger sprinters later in his career he ran a 9.7 100.
— In 1965 Tom entered the indoor Big Tens with a sprained foot and didn’t make it to the final.
— In the 1966 Big Ten Indoors, Tom had to go up against juniors Gene Washington and Clint Jones of Michigan State. Both were stars on Michigan State’s National Champion 1965 and 1966 football teams. Jones a halfback and Washington a receiver. Both have been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and had long careers in the NFL. Washington had won the NCAA High Hurdles indoors in 1965. All-in-all, the competition was top-notch. Tom had the fastest time in the trials and found himself in the lane between Washington and Jones in the final. He felt that if he could come out of the first hurdle leading he would get pushed to the title. All went well until Tom’s lead leg spike hit the first hurdle cross-wood dead center, broke it into two pieces and sent him into a somersault where he landed on his butt.
— Tom danced in the UW Dance Repertory in 1965 and 1966.
— The knee injury and some divine guidance got Tom a deferment from the Vietnam Draft.
— Tom left Wisconsin in the fall of 1966, 20 credits short of his degree (due to dropping classes where he was struggling or simply hated them), to attend dance classes at the Martha Graham Studio in New York. He stayed in New York until February, 1967, spent a month in the Virgin Islands and then went to San Francisco at the invitation of a college girlfriend. He enjoyed spending time in Haight-Ashbury before it exploded later in the summer of 1967. He also saw a lot of shows at Fillmore West — Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Hendrix, etc. The girlfriend hadn’t changed, but Tom had, so things didn’t work out.
— Tom ended up back in Wisconsin working and getting some cash to complete his degree. He was back in Madison for the spring and summer terms of 1968 and graduated with a B.S. in Economics. For whatever reason, he found classes to be much easier than before.
— He then went back to New York and worked as a freelancer in the film production business for about five years. When he found himself flush with cash, he’d travel the world for four or five months at a time. East Africa and Italy in 1972 and Colombia in 1974 were the most memorable.
— Tom attended Woodstock in 1969 and also visited the area in 1971, when this photo was taken.
— Moving on, if we can, Tom settled down and worked full-time from 1975 on.
— He moved into commercials, became a producer at a production company, but soon realized the money was on the advertising agency side. So he slipped over and led a post-Mad Men life. The company-employee and employee-company relationships at New York ad agencies were fragile, to say the least, and Tom hopped around. At one point, he quadrupled his salary in two years and sounded as amazed and amused by it now as he was back then.
— He worked on a ton of national accounts, including Colombian Coffee (Juan Valdez), Porsche, Audi, Volkswagen, American Airlines, Miller High Life, Miller Lite, V8, General Electric, DuPont, Dodge Trucks, Pepsi, Nissan Pathfinder, Chrysler, Air Force, Bell Atlantic, New York Times, Valvoline, Delta Airlines, Avis, Johnson & Johnson, General Mills and Merck (among others). One memorable account was the worldwide rollout of the Poloroid OneStep, which led him to traveling around the world for 18 months.
— A commercial he produced that some might remember is a Dick Butkus-Bubba Smith spot for Miller Lite.
— Tom has been physically active his whole adult life and at age 76 bikes a 12 mile loop each day.
— The knee has been problematic, but has held up over time, with two scope procedures done and that’s it. The back injury has given him more trouble.
— Tom’s son certainly inherited the Dakin athletic genes. He was a Navy SEAL before getting an engineering degree and currently has a successful career in the tech field.
— Tom and his partner Susan split time at their four homes: an apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan, on far eastern Long Island in Sag Harbor, Montana and St. Thomas.
— For his induction into the Wisconsin Track Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2013, Tom had to travel from St. Thomas to Milwaukee in February. He says he actually enjoyed it.
— Tom was nominated for the WTCA HOF by Craig Shepard. Craig was the long-time coach at Gilman High School, the head of the HOF Committee, is acknowledged as a WIAA track historian and decided that Tom belonged in the HOF. Imagine a Hall of Fame that inducts 100% worthy no-brainer candidates, in addition to going through the standard nomination process.
— “Not a bad life”. That might be the understatement of the century.