By: Arthur Ade Amaker
The road to building a top state-of-the-art, $57-million-dollar indoor track and field facility to be based here on the South Side of Chicago has been as strenuous as a 100-meter hurdle race, but despite several “false starts” and tumbling over a few high hurdles, the race has started and the project is almost to the finish line.
The star hurdler in this race is Dr. Conrad Worrill—Professor Emertius of the Jacob H. Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies of Northeastern Illinois University and former track and field athlete from Hyde Park High School—who started to advocate for this facility with Mayor Harold Washington in 1983.
Worrill and Washington came close to finding the resources for the ambitious venture and had even identified a location next to the Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies, but, after the death of Mayor Washington, the project was set back.
A second hurdle was a meeting that Worrill had with former Chicago Public School Board CEO Paul Vallas in the 90s to try to see if the board could help raise funds for the facility. Unfortunately, that hurdle was not cleared and the funding was never released.
Another attempt by Worrill to work with the CPS Board was when Michael Scott was the Board president, a former track star from the West Side of Chicago who was all in on the idea, and who even supported it being a part of Chicago’s Olympic bid. However, this hurdle was not cleared after Scott’s tragic death in 2009.
Two years before Scott’s death in 2007, Worrill experienced a violent event which steeled him for the importance of this battle to win a track and field facility on the South Side. He was in a gas station at 75th and Yates when a young man armed with a gun burst in to rob it:
Worrill recalls “He put the barrel of the pistol to my temple and told me don’t move or he’d blow my head off…he put all of the money from the cash register down his pants…backpedaled out the station…and he took off and leaped over a barrel…and I said I’d be damned. This is a damn track man!”
Worrill, shaken but also strangely inspired by the event, decided to relay the event to his longtime friend and colleague, former high school track athlete Elzie L. Higginbottom, founder and CEO of the East Lake Management and Development Corp. and former All-State in Track and Field from Bloom High School in the 400 meters, and All American in the 400 meters at the University of Wisconsin. Worrill and Higginbottom had met when competing against each other in the annual Moosehart High School Relays in 1958.
Jokingly, Higginbottom says: “… Conrad learned to spell my name because he ran behind me and had to read my name attached to the back of my jersey.” Worrill said he hates to admit it, but it’s true.
Worrill urged Higginbottom to help him to convene every former track and field athlete they knew as well as any supporters of the sport. As a result of these meetings, the two men founded the Friends of Track and Field, an organization that has grown into an official 501c3 non-profit organization that has held a banquet and track meet every April since 2008 to help advocate for an indoor track and field facility, revitalize the sport, and, most importantly, to help “student athletes reach their sports, academic, and life goals.”
Some other prominent names that have helped with organizing the annual banquet and track meet are Eileen Rhodes, who is now the president of Eastlake Management and Development Corp; Bob Sadler, a former Deputy Superintendent of Chicago Public Schools; Derrick Calhoun, head track coach of Morgan Park High School; and former track and field running mates of Conrad Worrill— Reggie Williams, Arthur Hyrams, and Richard Ingram. These are some of the myriad of names that have assisted Higginbottom and Worrill to realize the overall goals of the organization.
Even though the effort of the organization to promote the sport in the Chicago area has been largely successful, there still were some hurdles remaining and some financial walls to be broken down.
A ray of hope came in 2014, when Worrill received a phone call from Chance the Rapper’s father Ken Bennett, then Deputy Chief of Staff for Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Emanuel had requested a meeting with Worrill, 8th Ward Alderman Michelle Harris, Elzie Higginbottom, Meghan Harte, and Chicago Park District’s general superintendent and CEO Michael Kelly and others in City Hall.
Worrill agreed to the meeting, and Emmanuel’s administration greenlighted the construction of the Indoor Track and Field facility at Gately Park, located at 744 E. 103rd St. However, another hurdle came across their path—a state funding freeze from Governor Rauner’s administration that halted money that had been approved by the previous Governor Pat Quinn’s administration for this project.
Both Worrill and Rahm attacked Governor Rauner for his political insensitivity to the needs of Chicago’s youth. The Governor responded that Chicago was sitting on reserves of $308 million dollars. Whatever the case, the project was halted once again.
But Worrill, like a determined champion sprinter, remained resolute, and is near the finish line for seeing his vision and that of like-minded activists and athletes come to fruition. During the last year of Emanuel’s tenure, and with a newly-released Illinois state budget for the City of Chicago and the Chicago Park District, along with money from the Exelon Corporation, and the Mellody Hobson and George Lucas Family Foundation, the Gately Indoor Track and Field Facility officially broke ground in the summer of 2018.
Not only will the building house track and field but also the Chicago After School Matters programs, volleyball and other sports during the off track season. Contractors McHugh Construction and Bowa Construction led by Nosa Ehimwenman, a Nigerian-American who was a triple-jump champion at Ohio State University, are joining forces to build the state-of-the-art facility, and the grand opening is planned for the spring of 2020.
To see the Gately Indoor Track and Field Facility finally manifest like this is like an ancestral blessing for Worrill, who comes from a long line of track and field athletes in his family:
“I grew up on the stories of my father running track.” In 1934, my father’s high school track team won the California state championship with five people. So I grew up with this rich history of my father’s love for track and field.
“He would tell me about how proud he was to be a friend of track star Mack Robinson—one of the top sprinters in the world (Mack placed second in the 200 meters to the world famed Jesse Owens in the 1936 Berlin Olympics) and the oldest brother of the great Jackie Rob- inson. They were lifelong friends.
This legacy has even dribbled down to my oldest daughter. She is one of the top high school track coaches in Georgia, and last spring her team from Campbell High School won the state championship in track and field. And my granddaughter is on a track and field scholarship at the University of Alabama…
Worrill beams with just as much pride from mentioning his family members involved with track and field as much as the ground breaking ceremony of the Gately Park Facility.
“I just wanted people to know that we never gave up in trying to get this project done. We’re hoping that this can really spark—at a higher level—young people’s interest in track and field and for people to become aware of the sport, to want to learn this sport and become coaches in this sport. This is our dream.”
So as Worrill successfully completes this race, he is victorious in his knowledge that not only is he honoring the track and field legacy of his lineage, but also expanding this lineage to include thousands more “track children” in the city and state to fall in love with the sport that has meant so much to him and his family. Let us hope that this legacy continues to reverberate for generations to come.