I have to admit, I had a privileged backstage look at the fantastic event that was “A Night with the Stars” presented by Lindenwood Track and Field. As I am the Executive Director at the Foundry Art Centre, where the event was held, it was a pleasure for me to attend the event without having to even leave my workplace. Friday, March 30th, a team of volunteers and committee members started unpacking what would be “A Night with the Stars.” The day’s set up went so smoothly as to go unnoticed, all organized by Scott Froidl and a committee of ten invaluable members. And though the day leading to the event was fairly calm, by evening, the hall was full of activity; including Social Hour, Silent Auction, EJ & Gallo Tastings, Spiro’s Catering, and Awards for Honorees and Special Guests.
Doors opened at 6:00 pm to welcome Corporate Sponsors and Special Guests. For the next hour and a half, visitors trickled in steadily, finding friends to mingle with, grabbing a plate of Spiro’s delicious gyros, and watching the inspirational videos of Lindenwood athletes stationed intermittently throughout the hall. I personally spent a great amount of time in the Silent Auction area where there were 32 wonderful auction items to choose from. Through Biddingforgood.com, guests could support the Lindenwood Track and Field Team by bidding on everything from autographed jerseys, tickets to games of all stripes, and backpacks bursting with Lindenwood Under Armor gear.
Everyone agreed that the success of the evening was dependent on one thing above others, and that was the generosity of sponsors and donors. Specifically, the tasting tables of wine and scotch provided by EJ & Gallo gave unity and purpose to the event. With the logistics of a party decided, who to honor was no problem with a talented community like this!
Booklets for the evening are placed on every table. The first page is a proud and inspiring letter from Brad Wachler, Lindenwood University Vice President of Athletics. Here, I first saw what I would later consider the thesis of the evening:
“There is no doubt that track and field instill traits among our youth that lead to success later in life. We hope that events like this… will enable us to impact many more lives and help us all build the champions of tomorrow.”
Naturally, the focus of the evening was on the “Stars” of Track and Field, so after another grateful nod to the event’s sponsors (Stifel Financial Corporation, EJ & Gallo Winery, USA Youth Track and Field, The Amateur Athletic Union, Circle of Life Animal Hospital, all of the area businesses that donated items to the auction), Senior Associate Athletics Director at Lindenwood, Tom Wagganer, and MC Frank Cusamano introduced some of those stars. They reiterated the reason for the night was to celebrate champions, and all around us were some of the greatest track and field athletes in the world! Nickesha Anderson – NCAA All American, NAIA Champion and Olympic 4×100 finalist, Ray Armstead – Olympic 4×400 Gold Medalist, Dick Cochran – Lindenwood assistant coach and Bronze medalist in the discus, Mason Finley – Bronze medalist in the discus at the World Championships, Dawn Harper Nelson – 2 Time Olympian and Olympic Gold Medalist 100m Hurdles, Nikkita Holder – Olympian in 100m hurdles and was bronze medalist in the Pan Am Games, and David Lee – 1980 Olympic team in the hurdles and Congressional Gold Medalist all joined us. And while I admit I didn’t know all those names and honors at the beginning of the evening, I have nothing but respect for them now. One athlete I was star-struck by was the unequaled Jackie Joyner Kersey. If my accidental interruption of her salad, asking to shake her hand and standing there dumbly, was as awkward as if felt, she made no sign of it. She and the other athletes introduced all mingled with laughter, grace and confidence, and not a bit of arrogance. When Wagganer introduced the Olympians in our midst, he said “look around – some of the best athletes in the world are around us,” he was not exaggerating. In fact, it bore repeating as the people around us were humble and grateful, and would not be the ones to champion their own excellence in athletics. It was obvious again that though the night was meant to honor the stars of Track and Field, what makes them successful as athletes are the traits instilled in them as people. This is, after all, a fundraiser for the benefit of student athletes – in that order.
In addition to recognizing the athletic champions of track and field, “A Night with the Stars” also celebrated the Lifetime Achievement of three individuals that have gone above and beyond for the athletes and sport of track and field. Robin Beamon Brown, Director of Outreach and Grass Root Programs at USA Track & Field received the first Lifetime Achievement Award. Gussie Crawford, the first female President of AAU, received the next, and last but not least, Dr. Richard Leham, Founder and medical director of US Center for Sports Medicine took the stage to receive his Award. The honorees were pleased and had an easy way of thanking the attendees. They all had clearly comfortable and long-standing relationships with the athletes in the audience, and the comradery of the evening demonstrated the collective sportsmanship on and off the track.
The last group to be honored this evening was a very special group of student-athletes and coaches from the 1998 Lindenwood track and field team. In 1998 the Lindenwood men’s indoor track and field team won the men’s and women’s cross country, indoor and outdoor conference championship and NAIA National Championship, the first ever team championship in the Lindenwood history. To see these student-athletes now is to see a greater version of the same people that raced together two decades ago. While of course, not everyone on the team could come together, those that were seemed to treat each other as if no time had passed. One team member publicly thanked his coaches for the experiences – and not just for the athletic training. He thanked coaches and teammates alike for building characteristics in him that he wanted to see in his children. All throughout the night, this was the recurring theme: work ethic, tenacity, commitment, teamwork, sportsmanship, and healthy competition are the true trademarks of a successful athlete. An athlete is first and foremost a person, and seeing student-athletes become the best versions of themselves is the greatest joy for educators.
When I was lucky enough to have a few moments with Tom Wagganer, he rightfully bragged that last semester’s track and field team had an average GPA of 3.3. The ultimate goal is for Lindenwood students to have a positive and total academic experience, so while it may sound unoriginal, what nights like Lindenwood’s “A Night with the Stars” accomplish is truly to support the champions of tomorrow. The students facing their college experience deserve the best training available, and that is a complicated challenge. Fortunately, the student-athletes at Lindenwood have an example of excellence and tradition of success to follow. We wish them all the success in the world – Go Lions!
Photos courtesy of Don Adams Jr.