Howard V. Staeger, who established the Woodbury Relays and nurtured it into a marquee regional track and field event, was the sort of coach who got his athletes to go deeper, farther, and faster than they thought possible.
So I imagine that “Howie," as people called him, would appreciate the can-do community spirit required to rename a special piece of Woodbury High School real estate in his honor.
Friends, fans, former athletes, and others who loved him are set to gather at 9 a.m. Saturday at the Howard “Howie” V. Staeger Memorial Track before the Woodbury-Palmyra football game.
Staeger coached the boys track and field squad at Woodbury High to 31 championships, including seven state titles, during his 20-year career there. He ran the relays until 1980, when Jim Mohan took over; Mohan retired last spring.
Howie Staeger “was not actively looking for accolades. He always wanted his performance to speak for itself,” said Jeff Staeger, a Cape May County businessman. “My father’s love for the athletes he coached and his commitment to them was above and beyond.”
Prior to 1972, “South Jersey didn’t have a viable event other than the Bridgeton Relays, which were kind of out of the way,” Jeff Staeger said. “My father wanted to do something to encourage the growth of track and field. With the Woodbury Relays, he took it up a notch.”
A U.S. Marine and Korean conflict veteran who died last October at 86, the elder Staeger established the relays in 1972. The event draws male and female track and field athletes from high schools across South Jersey and beyond, and first-place winners are awarded a gold watch, a classy signature touch borrowed from the Penn Relays that were Staeger’s model.
Woodbury’s annual spring competition is a regional tradition, attracting hundreds of athletes and spectators to the historic city and Gloucester County seat. “Some phenomenal athletes came through the relays,” said Dan Howey, athletic director at Woodbury High. “And everybody knows about the gold watch.”
Staeger, who suffered frostbite while serving with American forces in Korea during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir in 1950, was a disciplined man with "a lot of fortitude,” his son said. As a coach, “he amassed a record number of records,” said Warren Strumpfer, a member of the Class of 1956.
Bruce Carson, who was introduced to running and became a hurdler under Staeger’s tutelage and later got an athletic scholarship to the University of Maryland — called him “a mover and a shaker. He knew how to motivate people. And he knew how to challenge people."
Last December, Carson, a 1964 Woodbury High graduate, and fellow alum Bruce Griffiths approached the Woodbury Sports Alumni Association about memorializing Staeger. The suggestion had been made before but for whatever reason didn’t get traction. The approval of the association, a component of the Woodbury High School Alumni Foundation, was an essential first step.
“It’s a great idea to have a great idea. But you need someone to second it,” said former Mayor Ron Riskie, a Class of ’66 graduate and a runner whom Staeger coached. Riskie, Strumpfer, and fellow Woodbury High alum Rich Anastasi, Class of ’63, took the baton and ran with it, launching a campaign that attracted 48 donors and netted more than $5,000 for the bronze plaque. The early and enthusiastic support of Woodbury Board of Education member Elizabeth McIlvaine was also crucial, said Riskie.
McIlvaine said Staeger “made a real difference" for student athletes. “The Woodbury Relays have become such a Jersey event ... [that] I felt it was important for a school board member to be represented in the effort” to memorialize him, she said.
Earlier this week, I met Riskie, Anastasi, and Strumpfer at the press box at the athletic field of their alma mater so they could show and tell me about the plaque. Signs & Lines Printing, of Lindenwold, handled the job, although the volunteers helped install it. in the effort” to memorialize him,”she said. “It weighs about 81 pounds!” said Anastasi,