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The Tootsie Roll Kid, E.P. Baruth

Monday, April 11, 2011

E. P. at the work he loved most, McCook Junior College track.
(File photo)
With the coming of spring, and the announcement by the Knights of Columbus of their Annual Tootsie Roll Drive to aid "The Arc" (the Association for Retarded Citizens) and the local SWATS (Southwest Area Training Services) workshop, thoughts of E.P. Baruth, a great humanitarian and sports legend, came flooding back -- McCook's original "Tootsie Roll Kid."

When we came to McCook in 1957 we moved to a house on East First Street, just a block east of the old post office. Soon we began to notice a tall, thin, middle-aged man who raced past our house almost every evening on the way to the post office. He didn't exactly run, but he took very long, quick strides and gave off the impression that he was in a great hurry. One night I was out in the yard when he came by. He stopped, thrust out his hand, and said, "I'm E.P. Baruth. I'm up at the college. We're glad to have you in the neighborhood. We'll be seeing you around." And he was gone. It was some months before I managed to get him to slow down enough to have a little conversation. When I told somebody downtown what had happened the fellow laughed. "That's E.P. alright. He's always in a hurry."

Elmer Paul Baruth, sometimes known as "E.P," "The Tootsie Roll Kid," or "Mr. McCook College," was a native Nebraskan, who grew up in Indianola and graduated from high school there in 1925. He was a member of the Indianola high school team that won the Class D Track & Field Championship as a Senior -- noteworthy because he was the one and only member of that team.

At Hastings College, he obtained a degree in Business Education and was a member of one of the outstanding track teams in the school's history. In 1929, their mile-relay team won that event at the Drake and Kansas Relays. Their record time for that event stood for 40 years. Significantly, the team that broke the record, in 1969, consisted of two former McCook Junior College runners that E.P. had coached.

After college E.P. embarked upon a high school teaching and coaching career, which took him to Nebraska positions at Madrid, Elgin and Columbus. While his stay at each of these schools was successful, in 1950 he found a permanent home, when he accepted the job of business education teacher, track coach and assistant football coach at McCook Junior College. E.P., McCook College, and the Community of McCook formed a "Mutual Admiration Society" that blossomed over the next 22 years.

At McCook Junior College E.P. taught Business, coached the track team (with help from unpaid volunteers), and assisted Merle Confer with the football team, as equipment manager, and travel agent, working out the logistics for the team's various road trips. He also acted as Confer's on-field statistics manager. He was a familiar sight at the games, constantly roaming the sideline, clipboard in hand, recording stats that Confer might refer to later. One McCookite said that E.P. was the only fellow he ever saw "who could be at one end of the field to watch a kicker kick the ball then be down at the other end to watch the opposing player catch the ball."

In the classroom E.P. was a popular teacher, specializing in typing classes and Introduction to Business and Economic courses. He was always in a good mood -- always ready with a quip or a story. Here he also acquired the nickname "The Tootsie Roll Kid," for his custom of handing out Tootsie Rolls, on any or all occasions. (My children also benefited from E.P.'s custom, and looked forward to Mr. E.P. walking past our house, as he nearly always stopped for a moment to chat and then remembered them with Tootsie Rolls.)

McCook's Hoagie Carmichael was Dean of Students at MCC when Baruth was teaching and coaching. Said Carmichael, "He had the respect not only of his track people, but all the students at the college ... E.P. was very motivated. And he motivated his athletes with harsh words -- words like 'Ah shucks! And "Darn it!"

E.P.'s track teams at the college were legendary. Before he retired, in 1972, his McCook College track teams had won the Nebraska Junior College Championship trophy an unprecedented 12 times, and had won four Empire Conference titles. His teams placed in the top 10 nationally five times -- the1955 team placed second, the highest ever ranking for a MCC team. Along the way E.P. picked up numerous awards, to name but a few "The Binnie and Dutch Award" (named for Nebraska track and field greats, Wayne Binfield and Dutch Zorn) -- The MCC Annual Track and Field Meet was named in his honor -- he was named Honorary Referee for the Bronco Relays at Hastings College. Perhaps the honor that E.P. treasured most, was being named "Mr. McCook College" by the members of the 1969 MCC football team.

Harold Davidson, of McCook, a member of Baruth's late '50s track teams remembers E.P. as someone a fellow could talk with -- a near "Father Figure," who prepared his teams, not only physically, but mentally. Over and over E.P. admonished his runners to "focus" on only the race, and to shut out all distractions ... Races are won in the mind as much as in the legs.

In 1982 Baruth was honored at the new Ed Thomas YMCA when the indoor running track was officially named in his honor. Athletes, whom E.P. had coached, came from all parts of the country to join in honoring their old mentor. A special guest was T.C. "Brig" Young, E.P.'s coach at Hastings College. Coach Young recalled E.P.'s stellar track career at Hastings College, then added another memory. E.P. was fleet of foot, but was not always a conventional runner. In one meet E.P., who was running the second leg of the mile relay, committed the unpardonable sin of passing a runner on the curve instead of waiting till the straightaway. Even though the Hastings relay team won the race by some 30 yards, Coach Young was upset and accosted E.P. for this indiscretion. "You know better than that." "What were you thinking?" "By gosh, coach," replied E.P. "But that fellow just wasn't moving fast enough."

E.P. was very active in community affairs. He was a longtime secretary of the McCook YMCA. He served for many years on the Civil Service Commission. An active member of the ME Church, over many years he served as a lay minister in pulpits throughout Southwest Nebrasla.

Even into his 70s E.P. managed to stay in good physical shape. He might have slowed a step when he walked, but he remained slender and still possessed a certain athletic prowess. One Sunday, at a YMCA open house, E.P. got into a free throw shooting contest with men and boys of all ages. Using the old fashioned underhand method of tossing free throws, he succeeded in completing 20 out of 25 attempts -- good for 2nd place -- beating out two of the current high school basketball stars, much to their chagrin.

E.P. and his wife, Laura, were active in the many organizations of the Masonic Order. I remember, especially, that E.P. was always very diligent, when each year he solicited me for an ad in the Program for the annual Shrine Football Game in Lincoln. He was so very proud of the work that that the Shriners did for Crippled Children throughout the state and the nation.

I suppose that E.P. was probably best known in McCook for his regular appearances on the Saturday morning radio show, "Coaches Coffee Club."

Even after he had retired from coaching and had nothing to report on his own teams, he continued to show up on Saturdays, near the end of the show, a practice he continued almost to the time of his death in 1992.

He always had a word of comment on the Bison, or the Huskers, or a report on something he had read or heard that pertained to sports.

Then he would sign off the show with these words (which seem appropriate yet today), "Today is Saturday. Tomorrow is Sunday. On Sunday Go to Church. Go to the church of your choice, but go. Now, my time is up. Thank you for yours!"

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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By