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Students in graduation

PENN RELAYS CHAMPIONSHIP FROM 1969 IMMORTALIZED IN PAINTING
Jim Gallagher ‘69 presents school with print of team and coach

November 2021

As a new freshman in 1965, Jim Gallagher wondered at the large brown and gold discs lining the walls of the first-floor corridor of St. Benedict’s. Those Penn Relay Wheels, as they are officially known and one of the school’s most iconic features, became personally special for Gallagher and three other Gray Bees, when, as the 440-yard relay team, they brought one of the emblematic plaques back to St. Benedict’s in April of 1969.

Recently, Gallagher and his teammates, John Anderson ‘71, Jack McGowan ‘69 and Jim Scanlon ’71 returned to The Hive to present Headmaster Fr. Edwin Leahy ‘63 with a 70x40-inch framed graphite rendering of a photo taken right after the race of the four runners and their storied coach, Wayne Letwink ‘53.

The idea for the picture evolved from a “reunion” of three of the four runners at the Warrenside Tavern in Stewartsville, N.J., soon after Jim Gallagher and McGowan received the invitation to their 50th St. Benedict’s reunion. Although Anderson, who now lives in California, could not be at the gathering, he and Scanlon had been in regular contact. The lunch revolved around shared memories of the race, their beloved coach, their relative athletic talents, and the absolute glory of winning the prestigious event.

No one gloried more in that victory over Philadelphia’s Episcopal Academy than the track coach. Wayne Letwink ’53, Gallagher remembered. Letwink, a revered figure at Benedict’s, died in 2015 and, as Jim noted,  there were “piles of Benedict’s guys at his wake.”  Letwink had brought three teams to the Penn Relays in 1969,  and only one came back with the Wheel and the coveted Penn Relay watches.  When Benedict's relay team, which had the lead the whole time, won the 440-yard relay in record time, Letwink “went crazy. He loved bringing back those discs,” Gallagher said.

McGowan, who ran the second leg after the handoff from Anderson, praised Anderson’s speed and skill. Gallagher concurred. “John had crushed the people he was running against.” The last leg was Scanlon’s; he was running against a post-graduate at Episcopal. “Jim was 15,” Gallagher said. “He won by two feet.” 

After a few drinks and a lot of sharing of memories about the race and Benedict’s, Gallagher, a respected and talented artist, said, “What if I did a painting?” 

Retired after 40 years at Bell Labs and ATT, Gallagher had always been an artist. Having studied with Jack Potter at the Art Students League in New York, who gave him the basics, “almost like a track coach,” he still sees art as his avocation. His work can be found in Hard Rock Cafes around the world and he often does commissioned work.

In his studio above his garage, Gallagher started the picture soon after that meeting in 2019; he worked on it off and on for about one month, starting  with pencil and moving to graphite powder. When he finished it, he had to figure out what to do with it. It made sense to him to give it to Benedict’s in the hope that the school would find an appropriate place to display it.

On September 10, 2021, the Penn Relay winners of that 1969 race arrived at St. Benedict’s to present the School’s Headmaster with the painting. It was the first time the former teammates had seen it in person. When they convened in the Trophy Room for the presentation, McGowan said, “It was like we had never left.” And what did Jim Gallagher’s teammates think of his painting of them and their coach? John Anderson, the talented lead runner of the ‘69 team, said, “It’s a masterpiece.” 

By Noreen Connolly H’11