Walter Slovenski, legendary track and cross country coach, dies at 79

Legendary Bates College track and cross country coach Walter Slovenski, 79, died Sept. 8 at Central Maine Medical Center, surrounded by his family, after a long battle with cancer.

Slovenski, who retired from Bates in 1995 after 43 years of coaching, led his Bobcat track and cross country teams to 726 victories, five undefeated seasons, more than 20 State of Maine championships and four New England regional championships.

A memorial service will be held at the Bates Chapel on Sept. 24 at 4 p.m. followed by a reception at the Benjamin E. Mays Center on campus.

At a Sept. 4 campus ceremony attended by several hundred Bates alumni, faculty and staff members, students, friends and Slovenski family members, Bates College dedicated the indoor track at Merrill Gymnasium in honor of Slovenski.

“Walter Slovenski’s years of service to Bates and his commitment to his family, to his student-athletes, to the importance of competition, and to achievement are all emblematic of the highest standards and expectations,” Bates President Donald W. Harward said at Saturday’s ceremony. “Bates is proud to have had the opportunity to be influenced by his decades of dedication, professionalism and humane good will.”

Slovenski combined competitive zeal, deep care for his student-athletes and a spirited sense of humor and fun to bring out the best in his performers.

“The Slovenski name is synonymous with track and field excellence,” Director of Athletics Suzanne Coffey said at the dedication. “Whether watching him chase alongside and cajole an athlete, or seeing him offer a word of advice and encouragement to a younger coach in the department, it was easy to see the fire in this man’s competitiveness and the humor in his soul. The Slovenski legacy is unparalleled.”

Born April 13, 1920, in Dupont, Pa., Slovenski left school after the seventh grade to join his father as a coal miner. One day, a local high school track coach, Jack Daugherty, saw Slovenski perform at a local summer field day and convinced his parents to enroll him in high school. A star athlete at Cherry Hill (Pa.) High School who led his football team to a 10-0 record in 1939, Slovenski was later the national prep school long jump champion at Seton Hall Prep.

After spending three and a half years in the Navy, Slovenski attended Syracuse University. While there, Slovenski was an All-America baseball player, a two-way football player whose name still appears in the Orangemen’s record books, and a member of the track and field teams, competing in the long jump and high jump.

At the Sept. 4 ceremony, Auburn resident and former Bates assistant track coach Allen Harvie, a 1965 Bates graduate, read remarks written by Slovenski, who was too ill to attend. “The Bates community helped Ruth and me raise six children,” Slovenski wrote. “I’d like to thank every Bates track athlete for enrolling at Bates and making such terrific contributions to our track team. Everything I ever accomplished I have to give credit to Jack Daugherty. I learned through him the lessons of sports, the great joy of helping others through athletics. He single-handedly transformed my life.”

After graduating from Syracuse in 1949, Slovenski earned a master’s degree at New York University and coached track at Oneonta State College for two years before coming to Bates in 1952 as assistant football and head track coach. From 1957 to 1960, Bates compiled a 30-meet winning streak, including victories over schools like Boston University, the University of Connecticut and the University of Maine. The Bobcats’ state track titles in 1957 and 1958 were their first since 1912.

In 1958, Slovenski resurrected the long-dormant Bates cross country program and built it, too, into a consistent winner, posting a 9-1 record by 1963 and winning the first four New England Small College Athletic Conference championships between 1983 and 1986.

Slovenski produced 26 All-Americans, including five national champions. Slovenski’s track and cross country teams produced the highest finishes by any Bates team at an NCAA championship, placing fifth at the indoor track and field meet in 1989 and sixth at the cross country championships in 1977.

Slovenski has been inducted into the Clearfield County (Pa.), Indiana (Pa.) and Lewiston Auburn Sports Halls of Fame, as well as the Maine Running Hall of Fame. He was honored as a New England and NCAA cross country coach of the year. In the 1960s, Slovenski was selected by the Mexican government to upgrade that country’s track programs in preparation for the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. A competitor in the World Veterans’ track and field championships in 1989, Slovenski placed sixth in the hammer throw with a toss of 123 feet, 6 inches.

He will always be loved dearly by his wife, children and grandchildren for his own magnificent heart and love of family.

Slovenski is survived by his wife of nearly 49 years, Ruth; three sons, Peter Slovenski of Brunswick, Paul Slovenski of Cambridge, Mass., and Steven Slovenski of Lee, N.H.; three daughters, Patty Slovenski Gannon of Framingham, Mass., Sally Slovenski of Watertown, Mass., and Sue Slovenski Pucko of Webster, N.Y.; and 11 grandchildren.

Gifts in memory of Walter Slovenski can be made to Bates College, 2 Andrews Road, Lewiston ME 04240.