Lee's track champions pick up rings 50 years later

From left, Henry Orum, coach Tom Hollingshead and Jimmy Melton pick up championship rings 50 years later after leading Robert E. Lee to the 4A indoor and outdoor track state championship in 1971.  

Henry Orum was one of the Southeastern Conference’s most dominant runners in the early 1970s, leading Robert E. Lee to both an indoor and outdoor track state championship in 1970 and Alabama to the Southeastern Conference indoor track championship in 1972.

Team championships are nice, but the individuals in those days never earned any medals or championship rings to recognize their accomplishments.

“Track didn’t get any recognition,” Orum said. “We won the first SEC championship at Alabama in 1972 and they didn’t give us anything.”

Jimmy Melton, a speedster on those Lee championship squads, took it upon himself to correct the oversight, presenting Orum and the Generals’ coach, Tom Hollingshead, with championship rings in recognition of the 50th anniversary of Lee’s championship track program.

“The football team did the 50th anniversary,” Melton said. “I started thinking about this and thought it would be nice to do something because Coach meant so much to me and influenced so many people.”

Hollingshead, who coached the state’s most dominant track program from that era for 10 years and was an assistant coach on the football team, was appreciative of the recognition but downplayed his role as the leader of a program that won four consecutive indoor state championships (1968-71) and three outdoor titles (1968, 1970 and 1971) while integrating the program.

“We were very fortunate,” Hollingshead said. “I was able to be a part of 12 state championships -- two in football, one in golf and nine in track and field. You can’t dream up something like that. These guys made me look good.”

Orum, sporting his new ring during a lunch meeting on Monday at Chappy’s Deli, was grateful for the ring after earning more recognition over the last four decades as a United Way spokesman and a coach in Special Olympics.

“This means more to me than anything,” he said. “(Hollingshead) made us a much better person. When I left there, I started working with special needs students for 40 years. I raised $6 million for United Way. He just taught us how to be successful in life. All you have to do is be focused on where you want to go and he made sure we were focused.”

Hollingshead would often train his athletes repeatedly on handing off the baton in relay races, using the hallways of the high school when it rained, looking for any edge to improve the time and earn a few more points in the title chase. Refining their craft earned scholarships to Alabama for Orum and Thomas Whatley, to Auburn for pole vaulter David Blake and championship honors for football players such as Secdrick McIntyre and Terry Beasley.

Finding a football assistant who cared as much about track as Hollingshead did was hard to find in the 1970s and is certainly as rare today.

“You also don’t have the athletes, like these people, that will do what you ask them to do and train hard,” Hollingshead said. “I never had anybody question me on a workout or anything. We changed up all the time, but they would just go on and do it and take my word for it.”

The combination of coaching, talent and dedication made a champion out of Keith Kline, who earned the state championship in cross country during that era.

“(Hollingshead) had a station wagon and he took us up to Jasmine Hill and he’d put us out and we’d run Jasmine Hill,” Melton recalled.

“It was one mile from the bottom to the top of the hill,” Hollingshead said. “They ran it many times.”

Two years later, the multi-tasking would pay off for Orum, who set a Southeastern Conference record with 30.5 points scored in the 1973 meet. (It was later topped by Harvey Glance’s 32.5 points in 1977 and tied by Justin Gatlin of Tennessee in 2002, but remains the second highest individual point total ever in an SEC championship track meet).

“We were in Mobile (at a high school meet) and I ran the high hurdles, long jump, triple jump, high jump and Coach came over and said, ‘We need a couple more points, I need you to run the 100-yard dash,”’ Orum recalled. “I just walked over to the 100-yard dash and did what the coach said do. I got my doors blown in by Jimmy Melton.

“But he got me strong enough to be the MVP in 72, 73, 74 in the Southeastern Conference. I was the first person to score 30.5 points in one track meet. At Lee, he had me score 221 points in 10 track meets. He’s a super good coach.”

Orum set the mark in the 1973 outdoor meet but was also awarded the Cliff Harper Trophy as the conference’s top indoor track performer in both 1972 and 1974. Years later, as he reflected on his high school track coach, he was as appreciative of Tom Hollingshead for his character as he was for his coaching.

The 1971 team included a group of African-Americans that previously attended Booker T. Washington and were part of the early integration of Lee. Orum, Whatley, McIntyre, Henry DeJarnette, Willie Pickett and Forrest Robinson faced their share of obstacles in an integrated world. As Orum recalled, he was accepted at Lee and in his Madison Park neighborhood but between those two worlds, he was thankful Hollingshead was more than just a coach.

“We had a long walk to go home,” Orum said. “They would throw rocks at us and everything. Coach Hollingshead said that won’t happen again. He started taking us home. He cared about us.”