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Oral History Interview with Jeremiah (Jerry) Gaines, Jr., class of 1971 Picture of Jeremiah Gaines, Jr. from 1971 Bugle

Date of Interview: March 28, 2003
Location of Interview: Media Building Sound Booth, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Va
Interviewer: Tamara Kennelly
Transcriber: Philip Bartocci

Part Two

Jerry Gaines in 1968 Relay
Jerry Gaines in 1968 relay at dual track meet with East Carolina University, circa 1969

Kennelly: When you came to Virginia Tech, did you participate in baseball as well as...?

Gaines: No. I was just a track athlete here. That's what I put all of my time into, the bulk of my time, and it took a lot of work. It started my freshman year where I had to get busy making sure that if I was going to be--if they would trust me to be the first to be offered a full scholarship--athletic--I had to make sure that the job I did was one that was representative of blacks--that was high quality, standard performance, hard working, integrity, the whole nine yards. Because I knew that there would be others coming, and during my time here, I recruited a few other guys.

Kennelly: You recruited a few others. So you really felt that you had a special responsibility coming as a first?

Gaines: No doubt. I'm sure that maybe Jackie Robinson felt the same way and a few other guys that broke into professional baseball or football for that matter. You have to feel the same way. You have to perform. You have to do well.

Kennelly: Well one of your teammates from a 1968 newspaper article, a fellow member of the track team said, "He is the most valuable asset to the team. Other than his scoring ability, Jerry's spirit is contagious." So it really sounds like you brought more than athletic ability to the team.

Gaines: That was the influence I think of my parents. They're not with us anymore, but we felt that they charged us with the legacy, the responsibility to do well and to make sure that we hand that down to our kids. That's part of the reason why some of the guys I recruited have had their own children attend here and graduate from here, and as I said, my two daughters are here as well.

Kennelly: You really started something from being here. Did you feel welcomed when you came here?

Gaines: Yes, I would say. As for the negative incidents that I experienced, they were few and far between. They were hurtful things, and I recognized them. Some of the things were done out of just ignorance--people who didn't know what to say or how to say it, and things didn't come out the way they should have, and it revealed internal biases, of course. So I had to play the role of educator there, and say, even to teammates, "You know, you just don't say that," and, "You don't do this," and so it was part of educating guys as well.

Kennelly: What kind of negative things happened?

Gaines: I once had a football player. At the end of my freshman year, close around my freshman year, Martin Luther King was assassinated, and he walked up to me, and he said, "Well, Gaines, don't you think Martin Luther King was asking for it?" And I said, "Asking for it?" He said, "Yes, he was pushing us too fast." So I asked him then, "So justice should be on your timetable? You tell the world when the time is right to administer justice and treat people fairly?"

His response was, "Well I see I'm not going to get anywhere with you." I said, "No, not in that line of questioning."

So things like that, and he was totally unaware of how he sounded. He just didn't know. But what I saw--those are the types of things you deal with.

But for the most part, there were friends that I met that I will never forget. One of them is working for the government now, and he's been all over the world, and we just touched base again. I hadn't seen him in thirty years, and we are as close as ever. This guy, Chris Nicholson,was a guy who was on the track team with me. Another one was from Lynchburg, John Vasvary, and he became a big-time coach at the University of Pittsburgh, and I am still close with him. I met some of the best friends I've ever met here.

That tempered things. That, along with the black community that I met here, and we had to be together. There weren't that many of us, and everybody knew everybody. So they became long-time friendships as well.

Kennelly: There was a demonstration in '68 when Dr. King died over the flag being lowered near Burruss. Were you involved with that demonstration?

Gaines: No. I found that where were several political movements that were going on at the time. As you know, Vietnam was still hot, and the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, and I immersed myself so thoroughly into my athletics that I didn't have time to be an activist. It would take too much away from the things that I knew I had to do. I had to make my statement otherwise. If I were just a student here who came to study and to gather worldly wisdoms, that would be one thing, but I had to establish myself as far as athletics were concerned and make sure that, in my own arena, I was able to do what I needed to do to further my movement. For me, it wasn't about a lot of demonstrations and standing or jumping on cars and things that were going on at the time.

Kennelly: Well, and you had a very successful career here in track I believe?

Gaines: It was an opportunity. That's something I give credit to my father both earthly and heavenly for. A lot of things could have gone bad. There were a lot of opportunities for things to go sour, and I was blessed enough that things actually went well for me, and I have no complaints about anything that happened, I have no regrets about anything that happened. If the opportunity presented itself, I would do it again, and I thank the then coach Marty Puskin for having just giving me the opportunity to prove that there were some of us out here that might be able to make a difference in things.

Kennelly: Did you feel that there was good support from the coach and the coaching staff and that you felt that you were operating on a level of equality? Athletes are not all equal. Some athletes are more powerful, but just as far as that you were given the opportunity to operate on equal grounds with everyone else?

Gaines: I look back in retrospect on some of the things that happened, and I found that my head coach was probably my strongest advocate, but above him, the people who called the shots above him were not really particularly interested. I look at our minority athletes today and see what they are able to demand and get. I qualified for the national championships during my freshman year in the long jump. The record had been set in 1927, and I broke that record. We didn't have the best track equipment, and my coach asked the athletic department if I could get a set of sweats, a top and a bottom. He was told that I could wear basketball sweats, that they would be good enough, and that's what they gave me. I didn't wear it, but that's what I was given to wear.

If it was a matter of a request for contact lenses, no such luck. I had to wear glasses, which could shatter, and I did field events. I wasn't just a runner. I ran hurdles, I long jumped, and the safety thing was to put a strap on them, and that was that. But there were no extra, what I would have considered "luxuries," you know, things that student athletes today would consider expectations.

Kennelly: That's basics.

Gaines: Exactly.

Kennelly: Basic support to let a person do the best that they can do.

Gaines: I had to sneak to get an extra roll of tape.

Kennelly: That's wild. Who was the head coach? I think you mentioned before.

Gaines: Marty Pushkin. He was from West Virginia--actually went back and coached in West Virginia up until just a couple of years ago. He called me at school last year, in fact, and told me that he had retired. So he is still living in Morgantown and is happy.

Kennelly: He no doubt still remembered you.

Gaines: We still touch base from time to time.

Kennelly: Do you feel because of your team involvement that gave you a special sense of belonging at Virginia Tech?

Gaines: It was what kept me sane, and I say that because there were so many kids here. I couldn't have imagined coming to a school with that many people, and it made it difficult in two ways. It made it difficult because you very rarely saw another minority student. I was the only athlete, so I didn't see any there, and that's where I spend a lot of my time. Of course, your class time was in the morning, and your afternoon time was practice time, and so in my afternoon time, and on weekends when you were away at one athletic event or another, I didn't see minorities. They just weren't there.

And there was a basketball player named Charles Lipscomb who I helped to recruit a year later. Charlie was from Charlotte, North Carolina, and so it was really really good to see him. It wasn't that I didn't get along with the kids that were there. It's just that it was comforting and reassuring to me to have some other minority kids around. That was probably the most difficult to me.

The first semester, especially, it was like being on another planet. I got here early because freshmen had to be here before the regular student body during that time, a significant amount of time early. I got here, and I actually went out and started working with the cross country team which was here earlier too, so these were upper classmen who knew what was going on, here but I didn't know anything, so I would get up before sunup to go out and run and work with them. Just to have some body to hang with because no one else was in the dorms. No one else was on this campus, and this can be a desolate place when there's nobody here. So I was feeling that in the worst kind of way being that far from home.

Kennelly: It would be difficult. Was it comfortable eating with the team? Did you eat with the team mostly?

Gaines: Yes.

Kennelly: And was that comfortable?

Gaines: Again, there were little--for the most part yes. That was a time--it was a respite from the work. It was a respite from the garbage that happens in the run of a day. I don't mean racial things, although they were mixed in sometimes, but it was a time to just sit back and relax for a while. I would say, for the most part, dining with the guys was not a bad thing. It was pretty pleasant I'd say. I never had any bad experiences there to my knowledge. I can't remember.

Kennelly: So there wasn't a whole lot of time to socialize with the other black students?

Gaines: No. Its one thing as black students, you crave a togetherness and a social life, and that's what we're all about. It's a major part of our existence I think, so we want to be around each other and hang out and do just like anybody else I guess. But to be denied that it was really difficult, and it wasn't that I was denied. It's that the availability just wasn't there.

Blacksburg has grown so much now. I mean there was one burger place, and no one ever heard of it. It was the only one of its kind. I'd never seen any burgers like that--a restaurant of that name. McDonalds wasn't there yet. Burger King wasn't there. Nothing else, and so you were very limited as far as where you could go and what you could do. Because I had no car here.

You know, the guys, even my teammates on weekends would just jump into their vehicles, and they'd be gone, and that, I think, was probably one of the most obvious things to me was that you know, it's okay if we practice together, but on weekends we have things we have to do, and they jumped in their cars and went their merry way, and often times I'd be left in the dorm or go to the library for fun or trying to hunt down a few other friends, and after a while, you discover them, and you find ways to entertain yourselves.

Kennelly: You wouldn't be invited to your teammates' parties or their social...?

Gaines: That was not done.

Kennelly: Who were you rooming with at the time?

Gaines: My first roommate was--in the long run, he was the guy who ultimately nominated me to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, the Sports Hall of Fame. A guy named Joe Painter. He was my first roommate. Joe was strange because he was a distance runner, and I found distance runners with their distance running mentality they tend to be a little bit eccentric and obsessive, but that was no problem. We got along fine, and it was no big problem at all.

Kennelly: From the reunion of the students from the seventies, it seemed like a lot of those students said that they were actually all put together on one wing of a building. But then you weren't rooming with those students?

Gaines: No.

Kennelly: So it wasn't like you could just walk down the hall and say, "Whats going on?"

Gaines: I was in the athletic dorm.

Kennelly: The athletic students were kept in a separate dorm?

Gaines: Yes. At the time it was Miles Hall.

Kennelly: I see. Was it comfortable living there? Were there any problems about living there?

Gaines; No. The football team was separated from the other athletes. They were on one half of the dorm, and the other minor sports athletes were on the other half. We had the basketball players, the swimmers, the track athletes, golf, tennis; all of us were on the other wing. The football team was housed on the other half--all three floors, and then the rest of the athletes were scattered about on the other half.

Kennelly: You were the president of the Monogram Club your senior year which suggests that you were respected by your fellow athletes.

Gaines: Well, by then I guess once anyone gets comfortable and even more importantly has a little bit of a reputation as far as integrity, character, and has done a few things of note in someone else's eyes, then that wasn't that hard a thing, I would imagine, for them to see that I could do that without a whole lot of trouble. It was no big deal, and I never really thought of that as any major triumph. Perhaps some may, but it was something that I thought was in order, and I took it quite normally.

Kennelly: Sort of in stride as part of

Gaines: Yes, as part of the deal.

Kennelly: How did you find the classrooms here? The professors?

Gaines: There were interesting things that happened in classrooms. I felt coldly treated by a couple of professors at the time, but for all the cold treatment that I felt there was always one professor, one particular one, who I will never forget. His name is James Jarratt Owen. J. J. Owen was his name, and I will never forget him. Ironically enough, I was taught also by his wife who was teaching here at the same time, but there was an English professor here, and a social studies professor there, and a sociology professor there who obviously didn't care too much about me being in their classes. There was some--but I didn't really know what was going on until I looked back on it in retrospect to see what actually what the deal actually was there, but some of them were particularly tough on me.

Like I said, I had to. There was no way that anyone was going to make me quit, and this I had to endure for myself and anybody else that was coming on, and so it is particularly gratifying when a Bimbo Coles or certainly a Michael Vick comes along or Lee Suggs, and I actually get chills as I watch them perform. It is particularly thrilling. Probably I think that outside of their immediate families I probably get a bigger thrill out of their accomplishments than anyone else.

Kennelly: People are thrilled by their accomplishments. How about the students in your classes?

Gaines: I had a student once in a sociology class. It was a large class in one of the auditoriums. I think it was maybe Pamplin or some place. He stood up and asked a question that implied that he believed that blacks and whites could not get blood transfusions from each other, and the professor apologized to me after. I was the only black in the class. He apologized to me, and to me it was the typical type of ignorance that I had seen. I wondered how in the world he got to college thinking that, but it let me know just how deep the ignorance ran.

So along with the drive that I had to accomplish things athletically, there was some counseling, some schooling, that had to go on too because there were just guys that didn't know. I had guys on the team who didn't know that black people get darker in the sun. At the time, there was that kind of ignorance. "Why do you wear a stocking cap?" "Let me touch your hair." "I've never seen..." Those were innocent things. I mean they just didn't know. So that was part of the program too that you had to play.

Kennelly: So you wouldn't get offended so much as look at it sort of as a teaching opportunity to help people figure out...

Gaines: Sometimes, I rarely got any feeling that anyone was trying to be offensive with those types of things. Some were blatantly obvious, and I couldn't help but think about what Yates and Peddrew must have gone through back then even before I got here, but again I needed to kind of pick up where they may have left off and make sure that the advancement continued, so they became very important, and I guess you spoke about my having heroes. I guess they were home grown hometown heroes that I had to build off of as well. Guys that I never had any idea who they were before I got here, but all of a sudden their role takes on whole new meaning, and so you take it, and you run with it. When we get together now for reunions, I am so thrilled at the success rate of the kids who were here. Overwhelming majority of them are extremely successful, and it says everything to me, and so I'm just an educator. That's what I do. That's my lot in life, but to see the heights that some of them have reached is just so impressive. To have been able to be a part of that, it was really quite a privilege, and it added some serious meaning to my own existence, I think.

Kennelly: Why did you decide to study Spanish?

Gaines: I had a teacher back in high school. Her name was Millicent Clark, and I was incredibly shy. I always was, and she was my Spanish teacher. I took Spanish by default. I wanted to take French, and the French class was full of upperclassman, and they didn't let any freshman get in there, so I had to take Spanish, and that's where I met Mrs. Clark. She gave me a whole new type of confidence, and it wasn't so much about Spanish. It was just in myself--confidence in myself to believe that I could stand up and do something that I never did before because Spanish was a very foreign language to me. She made me try and not be afraid to say things in front of people, not be afraid of being possibly laughed at, and it meant a lot. So I had more Spanish than anything else, so I actually thought I would major in Spanish and then just switch over to something else once I got here and got comfortable, but it never switched over, so I made a career of it, and I ended up teaching Spanish, teaching Spanish and taking kids to Spain and Europe. It was what was supposed to happen. I don't believe in fate.

Kennelly: Taking them on tours of Spain...That's interesting. It seems like you decided pretty early on to be a teacher. You talk about it as a ministry. It seems like something that wasn't maybe I don't know if you consciously decided or you just found yourself doing it.

Gaines: That's a funny story because I had no intention of being a teacher. Once I left here I did a short stint in the army, then after that I came back home, and I said, "Here I am," you know. "Why isn't everybody jumping up and down glad to see me and offering me jobs paying big salaries?" and such was not the case.

I had to work very hard. Having been in the army, having graduated from here, and, I thought, and having gotten a little bit of notoriety, I thought that meant that things would be easier than they ultimately were. They were still very difficult, and the only reason, the only way that I got into teaching was an amazing set of circumstances fell into place for me.

That is, when I got out of the army in 1972 the school system had just built a new high school in my area. The guy who was the principal was my high school football coach. The guy who was the Spanish teacher who was leaving was a very good friend of mine, and he was leaving, and he said, "Why don't you come and apply for this?" I didn't take any education courses here because I had no intention of doing that. Those are things that I did after they showed an interest in me.

The former football coach who was the principal knew me well, and he knew my character, so he said, "Okay, fine, I will give you this opportunity." Coincidently, they needed a Spanish teacher, a track coach, a football coach, and a cross-country coach. They weren't likely to find that combination anywhere. So that let me know that had to have been what I was chosen to do. So when I started, it took about five years to get used to the idea that that's what I was supposed to be doing, because it was not in my mind to be spending my career with a bunch of teenagers, but I know now that that was my calling. That's what I was supposed to do.

Kennelly: So you now teach in high school?

Gaines: Yes. I have a former student who is a professor here.

Kennelly: Who is that?

Gaines: His name is Dwayne Brandon. He's an accounting professor. The irony of all that is I also taught his mother.

Kennelly: Oh my goodness. Wow! Did you pursue track after you left Virginia Tech?

Gaines: I ran track, masters' track, but I did that later. I always played baseball in my life. From those little league games my dad started, I played baseball every summer right up through. I played baseball in high school despite the fact that I ran track in the same season. I did that. Then I came back home and played the same type of league that my dad must have played in when he was coming up. It was a little bit more developed then, and a few more people had a few more teams, and guys who didn't quite make it into the pros would go down and get into leagues and so forth. We played there.

Kennelly: So you played in that kind of league too.

Gaines: Yes. I got into masters' track later on in life because my father had started running track himself, and he was in his late sixties then, so he started running, and I started running just to be with him. It was my opportunity I guess to carry him around because he came and picked me up at all my practices, so it was my opportunity to take him to meets and so forth. So the Regional National Masters Championship at NC State and this sort of thing all over the place, the Penn Relays of course, and I have a picture of him sitting with Bill Cosby, who was the official starter of all the guys who were over eighty.

Bill Cosby with Jeremiah Gaines, Sr.
Bill Cosby, left, official starter for the over eighty division of the Penn Relays, with Jeremiah Gaines, Sr. in the late 1980s

[end of Tape 1, side A]

[Tape 1, side B]

Kennelly: Oh my goodness. Did you bring that with you?

Gaines: I did not bring it with me.

Kennelly: Maybe we could borrow it and scan it sometime.

Gaines: I could send it to you.

Kennelly: That would be great to have. That's great. It's wonderful to keep that athletic thing going.

Kennelly: When were you inducted into the Hall of Fame here?

Gaines: 1990. I had a good year that year. I was also teacher of the year in our school system that year.

Kennelly: You've been teacher of the year a couple of times haven't you?

Gaines: I've been teacher of the year, coach of the year, and got inducted into Tech's Hall of Fame in the same year.

Kennelly: All at the same time! Wow!

Gaines: 1990 was a good year.

Kennelly: Were you the first black athlete to be inducted into the Hall of Fame?

Gaines: I would guess probably not. I would say probably not. I don't really know, but I would think not because I know that there were guys who came along shortly after I did who were tremendously successful. Bruce Smith was later on, but I'm a considerable number of years older than Bruce, but he's again a kid from down home, and his record speaks for itself, and everyone knows how well he did. So I was--I don't know--just somebody who maybe just cracked the door open a little bit for those guys. They're the ones who kicked it down.

Kennelly: Did you belong to the Groove Phi Groove when you were here?

Gaines; No. Several of the guys that I was here with started Groove Phi Groove, and I personally did not want to join a fraternity, and that started out early in life. The guys here needed that social outlet, I think. And there was nothing wrong with that. But I was a little bit cramped as far as time was concerned, and I didn't, I couldn't go and, say, work on building or doing repairs on a frat house or that sort of thing. I just didn't have that kind of time. For me it was tough enough to go to classes in the morning, to work out as hard as we worked out in...In all my years here I missed one practice, one, and so it was tough. And then in the evenings it was a matter of studying, so I just did not have that kind of time. I think too that there may have been just a little bit of resentment maybe from one or two people that I didn't join the frat because it was the only black one here. But at the time, I just did not have that kind of time.

Kennelly: Well what would you do for social life besides go to the library?

Gaines: My social life was virtually nonexistent. There was no social life, not for me. I longed very much to be with the guys. Some of them I had gone to high school with, but I just did not have the time. I see them today, and yet when I see them today we're very close today. A lot of them went to school down in the same Tidewater area with me, several as I said, from the same high school. But it didn't hurt our relationships. We're still good friends, but I wished for a long time that I could possibly get with them and just do some things. Time just didn't allow it. By weekends I was a lot of times out of state doing something someplace else.

Kennelly: Right. It's a big commitment I guess.

Gaines: With indoor track starting so early in the year, you started training about mid football season, and then you didn't finish until June. If you made the nationals, the nationals didn't take place until the first or second week of June. So your whole year was taken, and Pushkin was very tough. He insisted that you be at practice. He insisted that you work hard, and we worked hard. We worked very hard. Everybody who was a part of those teams knew we worked. We did not have a whole lot of gifted athletes, but we just worked, and we got as good as we did because we just outworked other people. They were good years.

Part One - Part Two - Part Three

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