In the early to mid-1950s, Tappan Zee High School was a hotbed of athletic talent, with names like Howie Pierson, Joe D’Auria, Frank Cosentino, Hubie Nealy and John Mercurio lighting up the playing fields of Rockland. When Hugh Short – the former world record holder in the 600-yard run for Georgetown – arrived at Tappan Zee in 1949 to coach track and cross country, the conditions were ripe for some more sporting magic. And Gene Martin became the Pied Piper in the Dutchies’ running renaissance.
Inspired by Coach Short’s enlightened philosophy of seeking the best competition, Gene captured the New York State mile championship in his senior year, 1955. Running on a slow cinder track on a damp, rainy day in Rome, N.Y., Gene outdistanced defending champion Artie Dunn of Sewanhaka, Long Island, to win handily in 4:26.0.
“Gene ran a smart race,” says Short, who is 89 and lives in South Burlington, Vt. “We knew Dunn had a better kick, so we planned to run the third quarter very fast. At halfway Gene took off and ran a 65-second third quarter. He built a 20-yard lead and Dunn couldn’t catch him. Gene was a strong runner; he had a great heart and tremendous determination. When the gun went off, he knew what he was doing.”
In post-season junior competition (age 19 or younger), Gene went that one better. Entered in the mile at the junior metro- politan AAU championships at Van Cortlandt Park stadium in the Bronx, Gene finished second to a Wesleyan University freshman in a time of 4:23.4, which was half a second faster than the listed state high school record of 4:23.9. Since it was not achieved in a high school-sanctioned meet, however, it couldn’t qualify as a record.
But considering that the national high school record in June 1955 was 4:19.5 – it had been 4:21.2 for the previous 20 years – Gene’s performance truly was outstanding for the cinder track era. Gene never ran on an all-weather track, the accepted standard today.
Gene credits Coach Short for much of his success. “Hugh said that to run a 4:20 mile, you had to run against 4:20 milers, not 6-minute milers,” Gene says. “It was important to run against the best.” In the 1950s Rockland teams generally ran against local competition, but Tappan Zee (in addition to Suffern) broke from that mold by frequently traveling to New York City and beyond for stiffer competition.
A native of Brooklyn who moved to Tappan at age 10, Gene attended Nyack High School as a freshman, then transferred to Tappan Zee as a sophomore. Immediately he began to reap dividends from the steady guidance of Coach Short, who started TZ’s cross country program in 1950. In that sport, Gene led the Dutchies to the first of two straight County titles, won the Section 9 meet and finished fourth in the State Class B race as a sophomore. In spring track, he won the mile at Sectionals and finished eighth in the State meet. As a junior, he won the County cross country title, and in track he swept the County and Section 9 mile crowns and finished seventh in the States, clocking 4:32 at West Point.
Gene’s senior year left an indelible imprint on Tappan Zee athletic history. At the St. John’s Invitational cross country meet at Van Cortlandt Park, Coach Short, who was attending night classes at Columbia University, ran into the athletic trainer at Columbia, who had come back from the 1952 Helsinki Olympics with a shipment of running shoes from a newly founded company, Adidas. Short was given two pairs of spikes, one pair each for track and XC. He gave Gene the spikes, which fit perfectly, and Gene wore the XC spikes that day en route to victory over the 2.5-mile course at Van Cortlandt. Gene went on to capture the County, Section 9, Eastern States Championship and New York State titles, while TZ also claimed the State team championship.
Coach Short’s progressive approach allowed TZ to field a winter track program, and Gene capitalized with several high- octane efforts during his senior year, including a fifth-place finish in the mile at the national interscholastic championships held at the old Madison Square Garden. The meet, which drew competitors primarily from the Northeast, was held in conjunction with the national AAU championships. Gene clocked 4:32 in the race, his first on a 160-yard, 11-lap-to-the- mile banked board track.
Buoyed by a strong winter season, Gene started quickly in the spring, running a 4:28 anchor leg on TZ’s fourth-place distance medley at the national-caliber Penn Relays, and winning the mile at the Rye (4:26.4) and Englewood (4:26.6) invitationals in exceptional times. Gene then took the County meet title in 4:29.7, a County record that stood for 16 years. (At that time, Rockland County records could only be set in the County meet.)
Gene’s running exploits earned him a full scholarship to Manhattan College. He was a versatile collegiate runner for the Jaspers, excelling at every track distance from 880 yards to three miles and at the five-mile cross country distance. Among his highlights were victories in the Penn Relays two mile (9:23.5), Metropolitan Conference two mile indoors (twice) and outdoors, and the Senior Met AAU three mile; a school record in the indoor three mile (14:48, at the New York City Armory) and personal bests of 9:18 in the indoor two mile (at the old Madison Square Garden) and 9:22 outdoors; second-place finishes in the IC4A two mile – behind 1956 Olympic 1,500-meter champ Ron Delany of Villanova – and the Senior Met AAU 3,000-meter steeplechase; and solid leadoff legs (best of 1:55.4) on Manhattan’s indoor two-mile relay, which clocked 7:44.
After graduating from Manhattan in 1959, Gene immediately embarked on a career as a physical education teacher and coach. He was an assistant to Dick Teetsel at Haverstraw High School for two years and spent two years coaching in New Jersey before a 14-year tenure at Valley Central in Orange County, where he coached five individual or relay state champions and two Orange County team champions. He also helped launch a girls’ track program in Orange County, and started the cross country and indoor track programs at Valley Central. Gene concluded his coaching career with a four-year stint at James I. O’Neill High School in Highland Falls, N.Y.
Gene was elected to the Rockland County All-Century Cross Country Team in 1999, the Rockland County Track & Field Hall of Fame in 2005 (its second year), and was an inaugural inductee into the Tappan Zee Sports Hall of Fame in 2009.
Gene, who is 74, and his wife, Marilyn, have been married 53 years and have lived in Monroe, N.Y., for the past 48 years. They have two grown children, Sue, 51, and Lyn, 50, and four grandchildren.