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February 11, 2013

Local challenges taken in President's Fitness Program in 1963

By Mark Simonson
The Daily Star

---- — I remember my first 20-mile walk. It was when I was at Oneonta Junior High School in the early 1970s. A few of us decided to take the challenge of a March of Dimes Walk-a-Thon, so my Dad drove us over to Norwich, for the walk from Norwich to Oxford and back.

I wasn’t a sedentary teen. Still, the result was many aches and a sunburn, but I was glad to say I completed the course. Some teens from 1963 might consider me a featherweight by comparison.

President John F. Kennedy felt that Americans were out of shape and devised his Physical Fitness Program. Kennedy challenged military personnel to a 50-mile hike in February 1963. Little did the president know, some with no military ties responded from our region.

The Oneonta Star of Feb. 12, 1963, reported, “An Oneonta Senior High School youngster, prompted by President Kennedy’s Physical Fitness Program and various news accounts of ‘hiking expeditions,’ will begin a hiking expedition of his own this weekend. Christopher Rounds, 18 … plans a 50-mile hike for Saturday.”

Rounds, currently a resident of Johnson City and retired faculty member of the Empire State College’s office in Binghamton, recently recalled the course of events for this hike.

The Star said that early on Rounds was on his own for the hike.

“I thought I can put an announcement over the public address system at the high school,” he said. “I’m sure that I can get some kids. But anyone is welcome — even adults.”

The walk was to take place Saturday, Feb. 23 — a long holiday weekend. The Star said Rounds had gotten 45 students to brave the elements.

The elements, as well as “the flu bug,” fought back with a vengeance. Going into that weekend, there was more than a 20 percent absentee rate at OHS because of the flu. By Friday, Feb. 22, a big snowstorm had hit the region. No doubt these factors put the hike on hold.

Rounds recently said after that there was no more Oneonta interest. He had grown up as both a Cub and Boy Scout with Troop 7 at Bugbee School, and then went on with Scouting through an Explorer Post in Sidney. Ed Roelle was the leader, and Rounds was a good friend with his son, Butch. They’d met at the Boy Scout camp at Crumhorn Mountain, today called Camp Henderson.

“Our whole family was a big fan of President Kennedy,” Rounds said, regarding motivation to do this hike. “I hooked up with the Sidney Explorers, as they were going to do a hike. I wanted to do it, but we couldn’t make it go in Oneonta.”

Rounds recalled it taking place weeks later. The Oneonta Star reported that a group of 35 students departed Sidney on Sunday morning, March 17, taking a path through Unadilla, Franklin and “over the mountain” to Oneonta. Mayor Sam Nader greeted the walkers at the Main Street viaduct. The group then headed back to Sidney. Only 17 remained in Unadilla, where they took a break for dinner at 9 p.m. Only eight completed it, and Rounds was among the hearty.

“It was a social occasion, so the 50 miles didn’t seem like much,” Rounds recalled. “It was hard work, but we had a ball.” Previous Scouting and Explorer hikes and camping proved to be good training for the challenge.

That same weekend, a Delhi Explorer group walked from Delhi to Margaretville and back, beginning at 5:30 a.m. and finishing at 7:45 p.m.

Dallas Gedney, a recently retired owner of the Hughson and Benson Agency in Oneonta, remembered that he took President Kennedy’s challenge with his Civil Air Patrol unit, which was based in Utica.

“There were about 25 of us at the time, and our challenge was to go from the Naval Reserve station on Mohawk Street to the Camp Russell Boy Scout Camp near White Lake. It wasn’t exactly 50 miles, but we hiked it in full uniform and combat boots, and we were going to stay at the camp for a couple of days so we had packs on our backs.” Not everyone made it, Gedney said, with some opting to hitchhike the rest of the way. A Google Map shows the trip to be about 34 miles.

“I was 16 and in much better shape back then,” Gedney chuckled. “When we got there, the rest were having a good old time, but we just collapsed in our bunks. We went hiking the next morning toward Old Forge.”

A special thanks to Evelyn Frazier Kesel, faculty and staff at Oneonta High School for their help in this story.

This weekend: The many activities of the WAAC, USO and U.N. locally in 1943.

City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.