Dave McDermott: Friendly, Intensely Focused Leader

Dave McDermott, a member of the Bays phenomenal class of 1963, is the most decorated distance runner in Whitefish Bay history.  He was a key member of three State Champion and eight Suburban Conference Champion teams.  He won two State individual titles and had three more top-5 finishes at State.  He won seven individual Suburban Conference titles and it would have easily been over 10 if the Two-Mile Run had been an event when Dave competed.  He has been inducted into the Wisconsin Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Fame.  This guy was really, really good.

Dave’s career was on the tail-end of the golden era of Bay distance running that began in the early-1950’s under Coach Jess Rudiger.  From the 1951 through 1962 seasons, the Bay was a fixture at the State Meet, winning four State Cross Country titles, had four second place finishes, a third and a fourth.  They had a bunch of great, well-coached runners including Len DePalma, Dave Jones, Jerry Nourse (State Champion), Dick McDermott (State Champion), Dave Kircher, Bob Weir, Dave McDermott (two-time State Champion) and many, many more.

The 1955 State Cross Country championship team.

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Dave attended Holy Family Grade School and along with HF classmate Tom Jankowski went on to become a fixture at the absolute top of the Whitefish Bay athletics landscape for the next four years.  But that almost didn’t happen.  Dominican High School had opened in September, 1956 and there was strong consideration in the McDermott household to have Dave attend Dominican.  Fortunately for fans of Whitefish Bay athletics, Dave’s older brother Dick (see above) took Dave to the Whitefish Bay track the summer after Dave’s graduation from Holy Family and had him run a Mile.  The time was 5:01 solo.  That’s an outstanding time for an 8th-grader now.  That was off-the-charts in 1959.  Dominican did not have a cross country team.  The McDermott family made the decision to have Dave attend Whitefish Bay.

Jess Rudiger moved into the Bay Guidance Office in September, 1958 and as a result resigned as Cross Country coach.  His replacement was Erv Nowicki, who was an Art teacher at the high school.  Erv had been an excellent track athlete in college at M.S.T.C. (UWM).  He would serve as the coach for three seasons.

Dave did not mess around his freshman cross country season.  About the same time he was finally figuring out where the bathrooms were at the high school, he finished a staggering fifth at the Suburban Conference meet.  Not JV, we’re talking Varsity.  West Allis Central senior Dick Trawicki was the champion.

Dave followed up that outstanding Suburban result by finishing fifth at the State Meet.  The champion was Granville (Brown Deer) junior Greg Gard, who when he graduated in 1961 was the greatest distance runner in WIAA history.  Bay program lore has it that freshman Dave McDermott was so intimidated by Gard that he was leading at the mile mark of the race.  You can’t make this stuff up.  South Milwaukee sophomore John Drews, who Dave would run against many times over the next two years, finished third.

1959 State CC

Bob Taylor, who finished eighth, moved into the Bay from Lake Forest, IL for his senior year and had never competed in cross country.  He had this to say about freshman Dave McDermott in his nomination letter for Dave to be inducted into the Whitefish Bay Athletics Hall of Fame:

“I have many pleasurable memories of the fall of 1959:  the winning team spirit, the team camaraderie and the unforgettable Dave McDermott.

In his freshman year, Dave was a friendly, intensely focused leader of the team both in practice and in event competition.  He supplemented Coach Nowicki, when asked, taking time to answer my questions on training, race strategy and tactics.”

I don’t know whether Dave ran the Mile at the Suburban Indoor in 1960.  If he did, he didn’t place.  But he made a splash early in the outdoor season finishing fourth at the prestigious Les Erickson Mile at the Shorewood Relays.

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There’s a lot going on in those results.  Marshall Jarreau’s older brother Al, who was also a great cross country runner for the Milwaukee Lincoln Comets, became a famous entertainer.  And the record Marshall broke was set by Dave’s older brother Dick back in 1958.  And the 4:35 was a great time for an early season Mile.

The Whitefish Bay sectional was the toughest in the state during this era.  Dave finished third in the Mile, won by Greg Gard, a spot out of qualifying for State.  There were no extra qualifiers at that time.

A week after the State Meet, Dave finished third in the Suburban Mile.  As a freshman, that simply didn’t happen in conference meets in those days and doesn’t happen in these days either.  The winner was Trawicki, who had finished second at State the week before behind Greg Gard, who broke the State record with his 4:25.5.  Drews finished second.

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I don’t know what Dave’s best time was as a freshman.  Whatever it was, I can’t imagine any freshman in Bay history to that time running faster.  As of 1990 the Bay freshmen Mile record post-1964 was 4:41.2m.  I suspect Dave was in that ballpark.

1960

Dave’s sophomore season was much like his freshman season, except there were a couple of breakthroughs.  Dave finished second to South Milwaukee’s Drews at the Suburban Cross Country meet and then finished fourth at State, but Dave picked up a scalp over Drews.

1960 State CC

The Bay finished third in a tight team battle at the 1961 Indoor behind Tom Dakin’s three individual wins.  Dave chipped in a third in the Mile.  The competition was tough and the winning time by Drews was outstanding.

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To my knowledge, that is the last time Dave lost to Drews in a championship race.

Dave finished second in the Les Erickson Mile at the Shorewood Relays and led the team to a third place finish in the Four-Mile Relay at the Suburban Relays.  He then finished second behind Greg Gard at the Sectional and earned a trip to State.  Dave finished ninth at State, a great result for a sophomore.

The next week Dave won the Suburban Outdoor Mile in a sizzling 4:33.7.

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That made Dave the first sophomore in Suburban Conference history to win the Mile, one of the alpha events at any track meet, then and now.  The 4:33.7 compares favorably to the 4:32.9m Bay Sophomore record that existed in the early 1990’s, when times in general were much, much faster.  And I believe the 4:33.7 would have been the second fastest time in Bay history, behind only the 4:31.6 run by the great Jerry Nourse while winning the Suburban Outdoor in 1957.

Erv Nowicki resigned as the Bay distance coach after the 1961 track season.  His replacement was Richard Vanden Avond, who came to the Bay as a teacher in the fall of 1959.  Van had been a football player and sprinter at Green Bay East and continued his gridiron career at Whitewater, graduating in 1951.

Van coached at the Bay into the 1990’s and was one of the best distance coaches in the state for much of that time.  But in the fall of 1961 he didn’t have any experience coaching distance runners.  But he inherited a veteran team with talent, character and self-motivation.  Those types of teams in many ways coach themselves and the toughest job of the coach is knowing when to stay out of the way.  The team told Van “We’ll write the workouts and all will be good”.  For many teams that would have been a disaster, but Van was smart enough to trust the runners and go along with that plan for the next two years.

This snippet from the 1962 Tower describing the 1961 cross country season says it all.

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Dave won the 1961 Suburban and the Bay won the team title.  At State, the Bay got great efforts from its top 5.

1961 State CC

Seniors Bruce Bendinger (20) and Bruce Wiggins (25), along with junior Jeff Farmer (26) rounded out the scoring.

1961 (2)

The 1961 Tower saying that the Bay “trampled” Brookfield Central at the State Meet is  . . . . .  not accurate.  Cross Country is the ultimate team sport where the score of the fifth runner is often times more important than the score of the top runner.  With the scores of individual qualifiers not counting the team championship boiled down to:

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Through four runners the Bay trailed by two points, but the fifth runner decided the State Championship.

This would be a lot better picture if we could actually see Dave.

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Dave passed Brookfield Central’s Lee Assenheimer late in the race to win the individual title.  But there’s more to the story.  At some point in the meet, Assenheimer had a significant lead over McDermott, but started to run left of a bushy pine tree rather than right of it.  An official 25 yards away yelled at Assenheimer to stop and go back around the other side of the tree.  Lee did, but it cut significantly into his lead.  We’ll never know what would have happened if Lee had initially run to the right of the tree or the official hadn’t intervened.

Lee Assenheimer is a class act.  More than 50 years later he refused to make any excuses and said Dave McDermott won the race “fair and square”.  Assenheimer went to Northwestern and had an outstanding career with the Wildcats.  He was a two-time Big Ten Cross Country individual champion and led Northwestern to the Big Ten team title as a senior in 1965.  He also won a Big Ten Two-Mile title on the track.  In 2015, Lee graciously wrote a heart-felt letter of recommendation for Dave to be inducted into the Whitefish Bay Athletics Hall of Fame.

Moving onto the 1962 indoor track season, Dave took a rare loss in the Mile at the Pre-Suburban meet at Waukesha to Wauwatosa East’s John Tschanz (I prefer Shvantz)

Whitefish Bay track lore has it that the race included a lot of elbowing, cutting off and generally dirty running.  Dave had a moment with Tschanz after the race and gave him a two-handed shove.  Tschanz reciprocated and it was on.  This was down by the Shot Put area, so the throwers from both the Bay and Tosa East walked over and represented.  An official broke it up before it escalated past the yelling and shoving stage.

The next week at the Suburban Indoor, Dave beat Tschanz in a meet record time of 4:31.3.  That is a fast indoor Mile then or now.  It remained as the meet record until 1970, a long time given how fast the sport as a whole, and the Mile in particular, were advancing during the 1960’s.  The 4:31.3 likely lasted as the Bay Indoor Mile record for 20 years.

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And a description of the race.

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The 1962 outdoor season went well for both Dave and the Bay.  Dave won the Mile at the Sectional in a fine 4:32.6 and went on to finish second at State to Lee Assenheimer, who ran 4:22.9.  Dave didn’t have that kind of time in his arsenal, so he did his job and beat everybody else, giving the team four points when they really needed it.  The Bay was leading Manitowoc 12.5 to 12 with six events remaining and while the Bay had plenty of arrows still left in the quiver with guys like Brian Bergemann, Tom Dakin and Ron Vick, you need to get the points on the board and Dave did that.  The Bay won its first official Class A State title.  In 1959, the Bay got screwed out of a State title by the WIAA’s incompetence, negligence and complete lack of integrity.  And then the Bay lost a close one in 1961 to Milwaukee North  28-26 where just a little bit here and there would have won the meet.

The next week at the Suburban, the Bay was having a subpar meet (subpar is the nicest term I could think of), but Dave came through when it mattered, winning the Mile in 4:34.0.  Brian Bergemann, Tom Dakin, Eric Smith and Ron Vick also came through late and the Bay won a squeaker 62.5 to 60 over Waukesha.  Losing the Suburban title to Waukesha, of all teams, a week after winning the State title would not have been a good look.

During the summer of 1962 Dave worked as a caddie at one of the North Shore country clubs and guess what he did on his day off when the golf course was closed for maintenance?  You make the call.

A)  Sleep all day.

B)  Hang out at Marc’s Big Boy on Port Washington Rd.

C)  Ride his bike 30+ miles to Hartford Country Club (site of the State Cross Country Meet), run the course and then pedal 30+ miles back home.

A) and B) are more than solid choices, but it’s C).

The 1962 cross country season was another great, historic year for Whitefish Bay.  A Suburban team title, a State team title and the Suburban and State individual titles, courtesy of Dave McDermott.

It was another tight team battle and the good guys once again came out on top.

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The Bays five team scorers were 1, 6, 12, 16, 43.  The guys at the top got it done and the (unknown to me who it was) fifth did what he had to do.

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Bob Weir, Rich Grey and Jeff Farmer were all 880 guys on the track, so their stepping up in distance is really impressive.

In 1963, Dave successfully defended his Suburban Indoor Mile title with a fine 4:33.8.  He then went on to win the Sectional with a school record 4:30.4.

The Mile at the State Meet was loaded.  Terry Ball of Granville had finished second in the State 880 the year before and was probably the favorite in the race, even though Dave had beaten Ball at the Whitefish Bay Sectional.  Bruce Fraser of Milwaukee Washington and Wally Booker of Racine Park were also top notch runners who had outstanding prep careers.  The race went out fast and Dave made an aggressive move on the back stretch to take the lead with 220 yards to go.  But he couldn’t hang on, and ended up not placing.  The winning time was 4:26.0, which was four seconds faster than Dave’s PR.  I don’t know Dave’s time or even his exact place.

There is never anything wrong with making an aggressive move to try to win a State title.  If it doesn’t work out, those are the breaks.  Dave almost certainly could have finished a comfortable fourth or fifth, maybe better, but he likely had no interest in that.

Dave did not hang his head and feel sorry for himself after what had to be a bitter and crushing disappointment.  Instead, he did what great leaders do.  He won the Suburban Mile the next week in 4:30.1 and led his team to the Suburban Conference championship.

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And the Bay absolutely had to have Dave winning the race.  The team title was a close battle with Waukesha and going into the Mile, Waukesha led the Bay 55-54, even with the Bay having gotten great efforts from Steve Noffsinger, Ron Vick and Tom Leiser earlier in the meet.  Dave’s win gave the Bay a 59-56 lead heading into the 880 Relay.

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The 4:30.1 was the third fastest winning time in Suburban Conference history, behind the 4:25.9 of Wauwatosa’s Ernie Bastian in 1934 and the 4:26.6 of South Milwaukee’s John Stearns in 1948.  Both had won State titles the week before at Camp Randall and Bastian’s 4:27.2 was the State record for a phenomenal 26 years.  The 4:30.1 was the Bay school record until 1971.

That 63-61 win over Waukesha was the eighth Suburban Conference Championship for the Bay where Dave played a key part.

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Dave’s greatest individual career accomplishment was his being the first athlete in WIAA history to finish in the Top 5 in Cross County at State all four years.  Dave went 5, 4, 1, 1.  Read those last two sentences again and maybe a third time.  That is an absolutely crazy, insane feat.  In the 57 years since Dave graduated from the Bay that has been accomplished again just twice.

Dave’s induction into the Wisconsin Coaches Cross Country Association Hall of Fame in 2018 was richly deserved.  Dave is one of only three individuals with Whitefish Bay ties in the WCCCA Hall of Fame.  Jess Rudiger and current Bay coach Mike Miller are the others.

Here is the plaque presented to the Whitefish Bay athletic department on Dave’s behalf by the WCCCA.  It sits in the Bay trophy case in the field house near the 1961 and 1962 State Championship trophies.

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The McDermott family legacy at Whitefish Bay lives on.  And will as long as the field house, swimming pool and English wing exist.  Dave’s father, Richard A. McDermott, served on the Whitefish Bay School Board from 1961 to 1970 and was a strong proponent of the effort to build a new wing extending north, featuring 10 badly needed classrooms, a new pool and a field house.  The Memorial Gym and pool were great facilities when built in 1948 (who am I kidding, the pool and especially the locker rooms probably looked 40 years old the day they opened), but were getting long in the tooth by the mid-1960’s.  But the new pool, and particularly the field house, were controversial and deemed by many to be excessive and unaffordable to the taxpayers of Whitefish Bay.  The Board looked to the future, realized what needed to be done and went ahead.  And the voters approved the $2,250,000 bond issue.  Over 50 years later the pool and field house remain among the top facilities in Wisconsin, and have been extraordinarily valuable community assets, in addition to their daily educational and athletic uses.  It was by far the best investment that Whitefish Bay taxpayers ever made.  Mr. McDermott’s reward was to lose his race for re-election in 1970.

1963 Cookout
1963 Track Banquet

Dave went to Mankato State to run cross country and track, but wasn’t happy there and transferred to Marquette.  After that, Dave joined the National Guard and spent six months in basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, got married, started a full-time job at Midland Bank, had a couple of kids and tried to fit in a class at Marquette when he could.  Competitive running was in the rear-view mirror.  He graduated in 1973 with degrees in History, Political Science and Speech.

Dave had a long, distinguished career with Midland Bank and Marine Bank in Milwaukee, and then with Bank One in Columbus, OH.  Dave and his wife Nancy have two children and six grandchildren and currently reside in the suburban Milwaukee area.

Dave was nominated for induction into the Whitefish Bay Athletics Hall of Fame in 2015, with 20 letters of recommendation from teammates, competitors and program alumni.  He has been passed over by the selection committee five times.

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