For more than 50 years, Hosea Hill and William Foster helped hundreds of Memphis boys and girls literally run to success on high school cinder tracks, college and Olympics stadiums around the world, and later in their professional lives as doctors, police officers, and businessmen and women.
Mike Cody, an outstanding runner himself since his days at East High School and Southwestern (Rhodes) College 50 years ago, made the introduction. Fittingly, when I arrived at Hill's house in south Memphis, he was watching ESPN and wearing a "Mike Cody" commemorative sweatshirt from a benefit race. Several years ago, Cody helped Hill and Foster pave the way for more black representation in the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association.
Hill and Foster both graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in the 1950s. Foster, who later coached at Vance Junior High for many years, says, "track was a stepping stone to football" for boys who were often required to run track in the off season.
Schools and sports were segregated then, of course, but Hill remembers the fastest black and white kids meeting on the sly on Sunday afternoons to race each other on the grass at the MLGW Pumping Station on North Parkway and Dunlap.
At the old Mid-South Fairgrounds in those days, black athletes ran on a pock-marked cinder track at the Orange Mound side of the grounds, where LibertyLand was later built. Hill and Foster helped lead the push for a new track at the stadium on Central.
Neither Hill nor Foster were especially fast themselves. Their contribution was helping others find their niche in a sport that, thanks to Rudolph, was on a par with basketball and football before "jogging" and distance running replaced "track and field" in our sports lexicon. Hosea Hill's son, Hosea Hill Jr., says both men were old-school disciplinarians who gave kids from broken homes their counsel, coaching, money for shoes, and encouragement to stay in school and pursue college scholarships. Their protegees included Wanda Hooks, a state sprint champion who is now a Memphis police officer; Tania Wells, a 4'9" miler who set national records at Melrose High School; Theresa Okwumabua, a sprinter who went to TSU and became a psychologist; and Rochelle Stevens, a product of Orange Mound and Melrose who won a gold medal in the 4x400-meter relay in the 1996 Olympics.
"Mr. Hill was a great inspiration to me," said Stevens, who owns Rochelle's Health and Wellness Spa in East Memphis. "He has been in my life since I was 12 years old. I did not know that I was one of his favorites. He would just take the initiative to go out and raise money on my behalf so I could go to the nationals every year. He made sure we were never mistreated on or off the track. I never forgot that."