Don Wayne holds up a quilt his daughters made for him featuring t-shirts left behind from cross country runners from across the country who competed in a Vale meet founded by Wayne. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)
VALE – Don Wayne hated cross country.
Which is funny, because he went on to coach the sport for years during his 31-year career, 29 of which were spent in Vale, where he taught every grade but second grade.
Wayne will be inducted into the Vale Alumni Hall of Fame this month, in part due to his contributions to raise Vale’s profile in cross country.
When you ask the 1968 Vale High graduate about his life, he devotes most of his answer to talking about the community – the people who helped make a difference for him.
He mentions his own track and cross country coach, Bob Bement, and the assistant coaches who worked under Wayne when it was his turn to lead local athletes.
“The thing that’s really neat about this town is that there’s a lot of people who are willing to help kids,” said Wayne, who lives in Vale.
Wayne’s photo appears on various pages in the 1968 Vale yearbook. He was in track and on the school’s first cross country team, yes, but he was also in basketball, oh, and those photos you flip through? Some of those were taken by Wayne, who was a photographer for the annual staff that year.
Before his senior year, Wayne also played baseball and football. During the summers, he remembers bucking hay, running the movie projector at the Rex Theater and working at the federal Bureau of Land Management.
Life after high school took him to La Grande, where he majored in elementary education and married his high school sweetheart, Annette Huffaker. After their marriage – they just celebrated 50 years – Wayne, who was in the Air National Guard, was sent to Texas for basic training.
[ KEEP YOUR LOCAL NEWS STRONG – SUBSCRIBE ]
Wayne had a brief stint as a school teacher in Seneca and Wasco, before Vale came calling.
Under Wayne’s leadership, the boys and girls track teams brought home their first ever state titles. In 2013, the girls track team sent him into retirement with the state title.
Those titles are still the only ones Vale has in track, but perhaps Wayne’s biggest contribution was the Oregon Trail Invitational Cross Country Meet he initiated.
For the Oregon Trail’s 150th anniversary, Wayne enlisted the community to help him bring top-ranked cross country teams from across the country to Vale for a two-day meet. The event was such a success that it continued for several years after.
“The community just does that all the time,” Wayne said, recalling his own games as a high school student on the road where Wayne said the Vale cheering section was as big, if not bigger, than the local schools’.
As many as 1,000 runners from Hawaii, Alaska, New York among others, would compete each year at the Vale meet and the event helped spread the town’s name to unlikely places.
One of the Waynes’ four daughters had a neighbor in North Carolina who, upon finding out she was from Vale, informed her that he’d run there as a high school athlete.
A similar scenario unfolded at a high school graduation in Carson City, Nevada. A family friend sat in the audience as one of the graduates gave a speech that mentioned the “podunk little town” in Oregon where he had the time of his life at a cross country meet.
The meet was one of the most well-known aspects of Wayne’s coaching career. When he retired, his daughters made a quilt out of patches from T-shirts left behind by runners from across the country who competed in Vale.
Recalling highlights of his time as a coach, the first thing that comes to Wayne is a letter he received from a former student. She thanked him for always motivating her no matter how far back she finished the race.
“High school and junior high sports should be for everybody, not just for the good kids,” Wayne said.
Asked what he would say to Vale students today, Wayne struggles to come up with an answer.
But his wife Annette chimes in: set goals and don’t compare yourself to anyone else.
“He’s always been good at that,” said Annette.
It’s something he may have picked up from the sport he used to hate, she added: “Cross country isn’t always about beating the clock, it’s about beating your own clock, your own time.”
SUBSCRIBE TO HELP PRODUCE VITAL REPORTING — For $5 a month, you get breaking news alerts, emailed newsletters and around-the-clock access to our stories. We depend on subscribers to pay for in-depth, accurate news produced by a professional and highly trained staff. Help us grow and get better with your subscription. Sign up HERE.