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D. Bruce Lockerbie: “Running the Race and Finishing Strong”

April 4, 2011

Yesterday morning, during the Sunday worship service, our Stony Brook community was treated to a word from Dr. D. Bruce Lockerbie.  “DBL” spent 34 years on the faculty from 1957-1991 and as anyone who has had the privilege of hearing him can attest, his ability to articulate and make relevant our school’s prodigious history is unmatched.  In his sermon he wove the athletic analogies found in Psalm 19 and 2 Timothy 4:6-18 together with the lives of Marvin Goldberg and Robin Lingle to leave us with a powerful picture of what it meant to live for Christ.  Here is his sermon.

You’ve heard this morning a farewell letter from Paul of Tarsus to a young man named Timothy from a city called Lystra.  Timothy was one of the Apostle Paul’s most important converts to Christianity; he was the chosen protégé and successor, eventually the bishop of Ephesus, where he was martyred.  Like some of you, he had been brought up in a family of divided religious experience: His father, a Greek pagan; his mother and grandmother, God-fearing women who taught Timothy the Scriptures from childhood on.  So when he met Paul, he was prepared to believe in Jesus.

At the time of his Second Letter to Timothy, after a series of journeys, Paul has arrived in Rome to stand trial for insurrection or inciting to riot.  Every place Paul goes, he stirs the passions of the citizens to noisy and sometimes violent demonstrations against him.  He has already been face-to-face with the possibility of being condemned to encounter the lions in the Colosseum, but so far he has escaped that fate.  He is in a prison—lonely and deserted by former friends and associates, cold enough to request that Timothy remember to bring a cloak that Paul had left behind, at Troy, and eager to retrieve both books to read and parchments upon which to write to others.

Paul speaks eloquently of the impending end of his life and uses athletic metaphors to describe that end.  The ancient Olympic Games were as popular in their time as the modern Games today.  In fact, an Olympic championship was an honor so coveted, the mad Roman Emperor whose birth name was Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus—call me Nero—entered the Olympic competition in the year 67.  All the other athletes withdrew, fearful of what would happen if any of them defeated the Emperor, leaving Nero as the only competitor.  So he won a half-dozen events, including the chariot race—although he was tossed from his chariot—and returned to Rome triumphant.

A tourist today passing through various Mediterranean countries can find the ancient ruins of stadiums and gymnasiums where competitions were held.  In some of the older ruins—such as those at Delphi—you can still see the remnants of starting gates that held the sprinters in place until they were released to run down the track laid out ahead of them.  Some stadiums were large enough to have an oval track which the Romans called the curriculum, a word which we have adopted in education to describe what we teach as “the course of study.”

Here at Stony Brook, for instance, the curriculum consists of six laps, from 7th to 12th grade, with hurdles to be overcome.  Oh, they’re not the same hurdles you’ll find on the Marvin W. Goldberg Track at a home meet or in a steeplechase race in a college meet.  The hurdles in this curriculum are quizzes, tests, exams, soon the AP exams, and always the Scholastic Assessment Test, college applications, getting along with your roommate, learning to manage your own needs away from home, opening night of the play, a piano recital, producing the Res Gestae yearbook, serving as a prefect, your work-job assignment, giving a senior chapel talk, and a host of other challenges—including sickness and sometimes even death.

This is the athletic context for St. Paul’s closing message to Timothy.  He sees himself as if in competition with its end approaching.  “I have fought the good fight,” he writes.  “I have finished the course, I have kept faith with the rules.”  In Paul’s case, he has completed the dash down the length of the stadium or around its curriculum and has done so within the rules.  No jumping the gun or cutting off an opponent.  So Paul is expecting God’s sovereign “thumbs up” that will result in everlasting life.

“Now,” he writes, “there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness.”  A winning athlete did not receive a gold medal or a Mercedes-Benz, as do winners of the New York City Marathon, along with a major check.  All ancient winners received only a laurel wreath, a crown of leaves that quickly faded.  Yes, some athletes also received money from patrons—part of their winnings from gambling on events—and there was also money gained by corruption among the judges.

In the ancient stadiums there were benches for the common people to sit on and some with backs for higher-ranking spectators.  But front-and-center, there is always an oversized seating area with larger and more elegantly carved seating.  These are the luxury suites of the ancient world where the judges and their entourage sat.  It was well known that some of the judges were “on the take” to disqualify one athlete so that another competitor could be awarded the laurel wreath and its life-long honors.  But in this passage Paul speaks about “the righteous judge” being none other than the Lord himself.  In this race of life, the righteous judge gives prizes to everyone who competes and completes the course.  There are no losers, no also-rans, in this race of life toward the heavenly goal.

But for Paul, life isn’t all laurel wreaths and success.  There are also disappointments and betrayals, false accusations and injustice, loneliness and discomfort, and sometimes the threat of persecution and the likelihood of execution.   So as Paul pours out his lament to Timothy, we can feel the heartache and the heartbreak of desertion.  The chill of a primitive prison in winter without sufficient clothing leads him to plead, “Come before winter.”  And always lurking, always a threat—the “the paw of the lion.”

So, what’s the connection between St. Paul’s allusion to running the race and us here this morning?  Running has always been a significant sport at The Stony Brook School.  Some of you are on the track and field team this spring.  The founding headmaster, Frank E. Gaebelein, was a college runner at New York University; in fact, he and I shared the same coach, more than 35 years apart.  As a young headmaster, he used to race boys up Chapman Parkway, until his wife Dorothy ordered him to cease.  In 1927, Stony Brook’s first team ran at the Penn Relays, and fifty years later, I was proud to be on hand when my son Kevin anchored a winning team at Franklin Field.

Only a few people present this morning knew the man who created Stony Brook’s most successful runners, Marvin W. Goldberg, who lives on in legend in the memories of hundreds of alumni.  One of them will preach here soon: Gordon MacDonald, Class of 1957, who has written a book called The Resilient Life, about the influence of his coach upon him.  Mr. Goldberg coached here for more than four decades, and near the end of his coaching career, Marvin Goldberg was honored at the Penn Relays—along with Bill Cosby—as one of the great figures in USA track and field.

Coach Goldberg could appear to be tyrannical and unfeeling.  If an athlete complained of pain and attempted to drop out of a workout, the coach would demand that the runner continue, even if he or she had to walk or crawl the final distance.  He always urged his runners to “run through the finish line,” not easing up a stride or two before the end, and so leaving the opportunity for an opponent to nip past at the line.  But the worst sin was to look back to see who was following close behind.  Marvin Goldberg agreed with the baseball legend Leroy “Satchell” Paige, who said, “Never look back.  Somethin’ might be gainin’ on you!”  In this regard, both Goldberg and Paige agreed with St. Paul, who also warns against looking behind.  He writes to another audience in Philippi, “One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize” ( Philippians 3:13-14 ).  What matters to St. Paul is not any past triumph or loss.   He has only one objective in mind: To run the race to its end and finish strong.

Last fall, my wife Lory and I joined in the celebration of Alumni Weekend.  Our special focus was on three returning classes: Our older son Don’s Class of 1975, celebrating their 35th reunion, the Class of 1965, celebrating their 45th reunion, and the Class of 1960, celebrating their 50th reunion.  I realize that all those anniversaries seem distant and remote to those of you who still have several weeks left in your own senior year at Stony Brook—or who are years away from your own Commencement Exercises and new status as alumni.  But for those who returned to see each other, it was one of the major events of their adult lives, and it brought us joy to see them so happy.

I didn’t stay all evening with the Class of 1975.  I went to spend time with the 1965’s and 1960’s as well, to see these men—some for the first time since their graduation!  But missing from the Class of 1960’s 50th anniversary reunion was the greatest runner—indeed, the greatest athlete—this school ever produced.  Some of you knew him as a colleague or teacher and coach; I knew him from the day he arrived as a 10th grade student.  I knew him in English class, in the choir, and on the track; in time, I knew him as a teammate with the New York Athletic Club.  I speak of Robin Lingle, who died just four years ago this week.

On every occasion I ever saw him tie on his spikes—whether for a workout or a race—I never saw Robin Lingle troubled or nervous or anxious about the stress he was about to undertake.  Instead, he seemed to revel in it.  When the psalmist wrote about someone who “rejoices as a strong man to run a race,” he might well have been describing Ralph A. Lingle, Jr.  But that was in the character of the man: He loved to laugh, he enjoyed a joke or a prank, he loved life.

Robin started out as a hard-working but not very exceptional cross-country runner.  By his senior year, he was the national high school star who did what no other schoolboy ever did before or since: On the same day—just hours apart—he won two championship cross-country races at Van Cortlandt Park.  Widely recruited by colleges and universities, he chose an appointment at the United States Military Academy.  But in his second year, he met with a form of injustice and suffering not entirely different from what St. Paul faced in Rome.  Another cadet—perhaps jealous of Lingle’s successes—accused him of an unconscious act that nonetheless constituted a minor honor code violation.  It was a mere technicality, hardly deserving of notice, but under the inflexible rules at West Point, he was dismissed.  A lesser man might have been crushed by the unfairness, but Robin Lingle used the experience to grow stronger.  I was able to introduce him to my coach at the New York Athletic Club, and he and I raced together in world-class competition.  At Stony Brook, I had often run with or ahead of him in training; now I was challenged merely to keep up.

In the providence of God, the West Point coach, who had always believed in Robin’s integrity, moved to the University of Missouri and invited his former athlete to join him there.  Lingle became the National Collegiate Athletic Association champion and American record-holder; he set a British and European record in London, and came within 3/10ths of a second of running a four-minute mile.  He seemed a sure thing for the 1964 Olympic team but developed an infection the week before the Olympic trials that weakened him so that he failed to make the team.  Another discouragement like those afflicting St. Paul in Rome.  After graduating from the University of Missouri and marrying his beloved Markey, he taught briefly in Missouri, then joined us here to teach, coach, serve as college placement counselor and eventually as athletic director.  Then, unexpectedly, came “the paw of the lion”—the challenge of his life for which all of his physical discipline as a world-class athlete had prepared him—in the form of a brain tumor.

Marvin Goldberg always challenged his athletes to “run like champions.”  It was a shortened version of the longer maxim, “Run the race to and through its end, and finish strong.”  Coach Goldberg was a living example of his own exhortation, for he too had been struck by “the paw of the lion”—by a grotesque disease that made it almost impossible for him to walk, never mind run like his athletes.  Yet everyone knew how Marvin Goldberg bore his affliction without complaint as an inspiration to the rest of us.  I believe that, when Robin Lingle heard his diagnosis and knew it was a death sentence, he also heard the voice of Coach Goldberg: “Run like champions!” and determined to emulate his mentor and friend.

This is a challenge to be heeded by each one of us, whether or not you are a runner.  So, what does it mean in the setting of this school?

  • Complete your assignments—every one of them—wholeheartedly and to the best of your ability.
  • Don’t fade in the homestretch, just because you can see the end of the school year just ahead.
  • If you are sitting for the Advanced Placement exams, don’t waste your grand opportunity to transfer your Stony Brook education into university credit and sophomore standing.  Do your very best!
  • Don’t lose sight of the goal you set yourself last fall, to make the honor roll or to qualify for election to The Cum Laude Society.
  • Don’t become discouraged because you’ve already begun to drift; instead, determine to regain your momentum and rekindle your desire to do your best.
  • Finish strong by doing what you know is right, even if some of your frivolous classmates tempt you to do otherwise.
  • If the news from home is discouraging, do your part to strengthen your family by the quality of your performance here at school.
  • Don’t waste your time on the trivialities and gossip of Facebook and Twitter.  What could be more shallow and unproductive?
  • And here’s a final point based on many instances of regret and humiliation: When the yearbook is presented to you for your signing, don’t ruin your own reputation and that of your schoolmate by writing a malicious and smearing comment that will corrode in memory for the rest of your lives.

Many of these same points apply to us adults: We too need to finish the course and finish strong.  To do so, we all need to lift up our heads and look our opposition or hardship in the eye because, in the strength of God, we can all be more than conquerors.

The final evidence that Robin Lingle was a champion intent on finishing strong occurred on an early spring evening four years ago at the Three Village Inn.  Those of us who were present all knew the pathos of the event before us: Robin was in failing health, and we had gathered for the unspeakable purpose of saying “Goodbye for now” to our friend and colleague.  But he had a surprise in store for us.  Like St. Paul, he had already finished the course and was just catching his breath with a victory lap.  As the evening concluded, Robin took the microphone in hand and led us in singing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.”  For my part, I was rendered voiceless by the emotion of the moment, but aided by the sound system, his clear voice rose above the rest of us:

“Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow, Blessings all mine with ten thousand beside.”

I’ll never be able to sing that gospel song again without remembering a boy and a man who ran the race and finished strong.  That’s what God expects of every one of us—athlete or artist or academic star, teacher or staff member, husband or wife, son or daughter.   Whatever the hurdles, the handicaps, the hindrances, the vicissitudes, or the victories—even “the paw of the lion”—we are given the race of life to run.  There are no short-cuts to the finish line, and no quitters need apply.  The race must be run from start to finish with courage and character.  Let us all learn how to “rejoice like a strong man [or woman] to run a race” to its very end and finish strong!




One Comment leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    April 7, 2011 6:49 AM

    Thanks for doing this Dan. It’s a service to the family and friends of Robin and the entire alumni community.


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