‘His heart made that race’: Grimes’ impact lives on as Carnival continues to thrive

Norm Grimes

In nearly 60 minutes of interviews with a few people who knew the man, you learn many things about Norm Grimes, the former Columbian cross country coach who died in May.

They talk about how passionate he was about running, and the kids he taught and coached.

You learn about his kindness, and how well-liked he was.

And by the end, you come to a single conclusion:

He was the father of the Cross Country Carnival, and there would be no Carnival without him.

“It’d be just an invitational, I think,” said Mary Lou “Corky” Scherer, who worked closely with Grimes and later became the meet’s director. “Until he built it to what it is and made it a classy thing. Oh, yeah, it wouldn’t have been that way if it wasn’t for Norm.”

This year’s meet convenes Saturday morning at Hedges-Boyer Park, 50 years after its first running.

Things have changed quite a bit in half a century. But Grimes was at the center of so much of it.

“His heart made that race,” Scherer said. “I would just say that. If it wasn’t for him having the heart he had, it wouldn’t have come about. He just loved it. That was just Norm. His heart and soul were in that race.”

And that dedication, in some ways, will be on display Saturday, when thousands of athletes, coaches and spectators descend on Tiffin.

The race has grown to gargantuan proportions, attracting schools from five states.

It’s impossible to believe Grimes had that in mind when the Carnival began a half-century ago.

“He knew it’d be big, but I don’t think he realized how big we got it,” Scherer said.

Milt Place, who ran for Grimes at the first Carnival before later coming back as a coach and starting the high school’s girls cross country program, said there were numerous things that grew the event.

“We knew it’d be an annual thing, but we never thought it’d grow to what it became,” said Place, who like Scherer went on to become the director of the Carnival for a time. “Several things helped. Great park, I think it’s 83 acres. We picked the right time of the year. And, nowadays the calendar’s so full, it’d be hard to start a meet and get a lot of people to come to it.”

But there was another factor.

“Everyone liked Norm, and they knew he had a passion…coaches around the state knew he was a good guy,” Place said.

Place pinpointed a key moment in the Carnival’s growth. A few years after the event started, there was a meeting of state cross country coaches in Columbus, and one of the speakers was Dick Cooley.

Cooley won a pair of state championships as a coach at Amherst Steele, and was a well-respected figure in the state.

And in that early 1970s meeting, the coach gave the Carnival a boost.

“He spoke at the clinic and said there were several keys to a successful program,” Place said. “And Amherst Steele, they’d won the state several times, and he said, ‘We get the kids to run in the summer, we recruit the heck out of the school, and we go to good meets like the Tiffin Carnival.'”

After that, the Place said the event jumped from having around 21 teams to into the 30s.

And it grew and grew.

But Place said Grimes wasn’t as concerned with the size of the event as he was its quality and reputation.

“I think he wanted to see it be well-respected. He was proud of Tiffin; he was a Tiffin product himself,” Place said. “He never did anything half.”

And the size of the meet likely was an effect of that. Place now coaches at Medina, and he and his team make the trek every year.

“He always went for excellence, and (when) we got to like 50-some schools, he wasn’t satisfied with that,” Place said. “He wanted to get it bigger. Sometimes bigger is not always better, but every time I go there, all our parents from Medina mention how well-run it is, and by gosh, look at all the volunteers. So, I think Norm had a lot to do with that. ‘Let’s push for excellence.'”

Grimes was always examining things and had ideas on how to make the Carnival better.

“He would be so excited. We’d measure the track, worked the track and walked the track,” Scherer said. “(He’d say), ‘Oh, we can’t go there, they planted a tree, we gotta adjust it’ — so we’d go walk another way, just to get it down the way he wanted it.”

Place said Grimes was always thinking.

“Norm had some interesting ideas,” Place said. “About 1985-ish or so, he got the idea of, at the top of the hill by the gray barn, we would turn right and go down through the creek.”

That became a problem one year when the area was ht with a rainstorm the week of the Carnival.

“We had (a runner), Robin Sponseller, she was probably 5-foot-2-or-3, long blond hair in a pigtail when she’d run,” he said, ” and all I saw was, she disappeared and you could just see, basically, that blond pigtail when she tripped in the creek. It was too high for her.”

For some, running through the creek wasn’t as big of an issue as what followed.

“Some kids actually had trouble getting up the muddy bank on the other side,” Place said. “They would try to get up and slide backwards. So that was interesting.

“Another time he got the idea of working with Wendy’s, they were gonna order boxed lunches for every athlete,” he said. “And I think that was part of the entry fee. And the logistics just made it really hard. That was in the early ’70s. So they threw that idea out.”

But Scherer said the races always pleased Grimes.

“Norm, he lived and died for it,” she said. “His wife was just as excited for him. She’d say he’d come home bubbly and happy.”

But Grimes’ primary focus was on the kids he taught and coached.

Scherer experienced that first-hand.

“When my daughter got cut from the volleyball team, and she was sitting out…crying,” Scherer said. “He said, ‘What’s the matter Scherer Girl?’ She said, ‘I just got cut from volleyball.’ He said, ‘That’s because you’re a cross country runner.’

“So she started running cross country. They went to state that year.”

Scherer said that as a coach, Grimes could get the best out of athletes.

“Norm was the backbone. He made other coaches — the guys he had became coaches, and they all (asked) ‘What did you do, Norm? What did you do?’ she said, “‘and he said, ‘You trat them like they’re people. You treat them like they need to run.’ He just got in their heads. Somehow he got in their heads. He was an awesome person.”

Scherer said it will be difficult this year, knowing Grimes is no longer around.

“You know he’s not there anymore. Because when you get there, I always used to look for him.,” Scherer said. “‘Where’s Norm?’ Is he coming?'”

Place said he saw Norm at a Carnival a few years ago, but his former coach wasn’t doing well.

“He wasn’t the same …he didn’t even recognize me, and that was sad,” Place said. “But, the 1A race we’ll be in (Saturday) is named after him.”

And Grimes’ impact is felt in other ways.

“You go somewhere, you always see a cross country Carnival shirt,” Scherer said. “You can go anywhere you go, you can be walking around somewhere, even at a fair, far away, and … ‘Gosh, that’s a Tiffin cross country shirt.'”

Scherer said she always asks the person wearing the shirt where they got it.

And then she hears about the Carnival.

“They say, ‘You need to see that,’ and I say, ‘Yeah I think that’d be something to see.'”

“It’s a part of me,” Place said. “I want to be there if possible, until I stop coaching.”

And in a way, Scherer expects Grimes to be there Saturday.

“Norm will be going through that race,” she said.