Chattanooga's running community lost a dear friend earlier this week when Sharon Irish died on Monday following a lengthy illness.
Sharon was never a runner, but she endeared herself to members of the Chattanooga Track Club by volunteering for many, many years. Her husband Terry was an active member of the club and Sharon got involved to support him and to be a part of what he loved.
She was 68 when she died on Monday, which would have been her and Terry's 47th anniversary
Back in the early 80s when the running boom was in full swing, Sharon took care of unsung responsibilities like pre-race registration, race day registration and then results tabulation. You want to talk about thankless jobs, but she handled them with precision and pride.
All of these details are handled online by computer these days, but it was all done manually back then. Sharon and her friend Dee Powderly were almost among the first people at a race site and they were always the last to leave.
I always appreciated what they did because I was covering races for the Chattanooga News-Free Press and we always printed the top 20 finishers in every age group. I was always on deadline and itching to head back to the office to begin typing those results, so Sharon always made a special effort to get them done as quickly as possible for my benefit.
Road races in those days often attracted large numbers of runners.
I'll never forget when the Missionary Ridge race had some 1,500 runners in 1983, which was a mob of folks for a relatively-small area and a fairly-enclosed out-and-back course. Before I left that day, Sharon made sure that I had the results of every person in every age group with their name, overall place and finish time printed legibly on those long legal-sized pages.
Sharon was all about cutting up and loved to have fun, but she could also get tough when she had to. Often when runners were slow getting those finish cards in the appropriate box, she'd go looking for them so her sheets wouldn't be messed up. She wasn't a big woman, but she ruled with an iron fist and justifiably so as she dealt with a bunch of egotistical runners.
Bud Wisseman called me to tell of her passing and the gears started turning when he shared the sad news. I knew that I wanted to write a story about her, so I started contacting members of the track club who knew Sharon and who had worked beside her and knew her well.
It did my heart a lot of good to talk to these people, many of whom I hadn't seen or talked to in 15 or 20 years.
As you might expect, I got a lot of great feedback. The feeling was unanimous about her love and devotion to a local organization whose purpose was promoting running and other forms of physical fitness.
"It's been a long time since I saw Sharon and am sorry to hear about her passing," said Dee Powderly when contacted by phone.
"Sharon loved what she did and didn't think of it as work. She knew what she was doing and did it well. We had a lot of fun at those races back in the day, but we also worked hard to get those results right.
"We were always the first to get there and the last to leave. We worked hard, but we also created priceless memories. I'll miss her," Dee said.
"Sharon started volunteering for the track club back in the late 70s and always carried that big garbage bag with all of her boxes for the finish cards," remembered Jerry McClanahan, another volunteer who made sure the finish line operation went smooth.
"The track club eventually bought her a laptop, but I can't begin to imagine the number of hours she worked for our benefit. Sharon was one of the most patient people I've ever been around. She and Dee were experts when it came to handling race results," he added.
"I have great memories of Sharon as I remember her and Terry from running camp at Camp Ocoee," recalled Ricky Park, who was always a participant back in those days.
"Sharon never said no. It didn't matter if it was a race or what, if you told her to be there at 4:30 in the morning, she was there. She was never a runner, but the Chattanooga Track Club was her pet project and I remember her involvement early on.
"I really believe that she kept the club going in those days and I'm sure that there will never be another person so deeply involved with track club activities who was not a runner," he added.
Richard Park, Ricky's dad, was another who was always involved in the club back in those days, both on the administrative side as well as a participant.
"I always felt a level of comfort when I'd go to a race and see Sharon working with registration or results tabulation because I knew it would be done exactly right. She was an extremely dependable person and so willing to give of herself.
"Sharon devoted a significant amount of time and energy to help the track club. And she was always friendly and gracious as she did her thing," Richard related his experiences with her.
Debbie Gates was always there as a participant and dominated the women's division for many years.
"You could always count on Sharon being there. Those of us in the running community didn't treat her any different from someone who ran, but she was always present and more than willing to do whatever was needed at the time.
"She was dependable and willing to do her thing so we could enjoy doing what we loved so much," Gates nodded.
Bill Cheal was another active member who had positive memories.
"I remember Sharon as one of the hardest working people I've ever met. She always expected you to do things the right way, including putting your finish card in the right box. If for some reason you didn't do that, she'd raise cain with you," Cheal laughed when sharing this memory.
"Sharon was something else as she did a heck of a job tabulating race results as she was the best at it," he added.
Louis Priddy was the race director for the FCA and Big Oak Ranch 5Ks for many years and he too strongly depended on Sharon for her services.
"The thing I remember most is that she never missed one of my races. There were times when she had to get tough with people as she had to keep order, but she was really a cheerful person at heart.
"Sharon was the face of the track club races for a long time and she did it all without a lot of recognition," Priddy said.
Wisseman has grown a large variety of roses in his yard for many years and he brought a beautiful arrangement of his flowers to the funeral home on Thursday night. He also had a card beside the fragrant roses that completely summed up everyone's feelings about her and was signed as the Chickamauga Park Runners..
"Sharon, You have reached the finish line of your final race. Your finish card has been placed in the correct box. The master record keeper has reviewed your record and says "Well done, thou good .and faithful servant -- enter thou into the joy of the Lord."
A big part of the track club's early success is now gone, but the good memories will always remain.
Sharon, I'm grateful to you for your kindness and the fun-loving relationship we had in the Chattanooga Track Club. I'm so happy that your body isn't bound by pain and suffering today. May our paths hopefully cross again one day in the future.
(Email John Hunt at nomarathonmoose@Comcast.net)