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Then & Now: Ex-EWU track star out of the running

Retired city planner Lyle Balderson retired

Lyle Balderson isn’t running from anything these days, happily retired for almost 20 years.

Of course it was running that got the former Spokane planning director to that point.

Balderson, 78, was a star athlete at Newport who was asked to run track at Eastern Washington by legendary coach Red Reese. That sounded like a good idea until the Korean War broke out and he joined the Navy.

When he returned to Cheney four years later he looked up Reese.

“He asked me if I had been running and I said not one bit,” the sprinter recalled of his days on a transport ship. “I was a little overweight but he said I could try out.

“To start with I wasn’t so fast. We had a race one day and a miler beat me. I was completely out of shape. It was a miserable six weeks getting back in shape. After that I had no problem.”

Balderson went on to sprint three seasons for Eastern, setting several school records, including a 9.6-second clocking for 100 yards. He made it to the 1956 NAIA national championships in Abilene, Tex., where he finished fourth in the 100, behind Bobby Morrow, who ended up with three gold medals at the ’56 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.

“It was just one of those things you go through when you go down there,” Balderson recalled. “You don’t know who you’re going to run against. I wound up in the heat with the fast guy. I knew who he was, you keep up with the records. He had the top time in the nation.”

The responsibilities of a family – he and his wife, Mary, have three children – and a full-time job at Eastern State Hospital to make ends meet cut his career short.

“I just didn’t have the time,” he said. “I was a little old for running, especially sprints. I was 28, 29. I didn’t miss it too much. My priorities were (different).”

One of his summer jobs was with the county planning commission.That led to eight years in Pasco as a planner and city manager, a stint with the state of Montana and a stop in Portland. Balderson was public works director in Washougal when Spokane, dealing with several annexation issues, hired him in 1981.

“That was very interesting,” he said. “A lot of things were under way.”

But 10 years was enough.

“I retired in 1991,” he said. “It was a great day.”

Despite his running background and all his time in Spokane, Balderson stayed active mostly by playing basketball at the YMCA.

“I ran Bloomsday four or five times,” he said. “I was not a long-distance runner.”

Balderson first came to Reese’s attention at the Northeast district track meet at Eastern in 1949. Balderson won the 100- and 220-yard dashes, broad jump and ran on the winning 440-yard relay for Newport in the county meet to move on to districts in Cheney, winning three events competing against the bigger Spokane schools.

Reese was interested, even when he found out Newport didn’t have a track, probably because Balderson was such an outstanding athlete. He was a two year starter in basketball and was the quarterback on Newport’s last undefeated team in the fall of 1948.

“I played four sports in high school,” Balderson said, explaining softball was an option back then. “I liked them all. I was kind of sports minded.”

When Reese asked about track workouts, Balderson, who is hesitant to talk about himself, told him they consisted of running down the road, on a city street or across the school grounds.

Balderson started high school at Rogers, and ran track for the city champions, but moved to Newport when his dad went to work on a ranch.

Despite all the moving in his professional life, the Baldersons sent two of their three children to Eastern and just had a granddaughter receive her master’s degree.

“To me Eastern was accessible,” he said. “It was near Spokane for work and it had pretty good programs. It answered all the needs I had and I learned a lot out there.”

Including it’s best to stay in shape.