Legendary York Co. track coach Bob Jenkins dies at 79

Herald columnistApril 29, 2013 

In through the front door of the Jenkins home came a woman who had been gone from Northwestern High School for 20 years. But on Monday she was a teenager again, with her track shoes on and a coach who would not let her stop.

Libby Holeman Love’s face was streaked with tears, and in her mind she was Libby Holeman, the skinny teen, again all those years ago with the coach’s voice in the background.

“You can do it!” the voice said. “Do your best.”

The voice came from Bob Jenkins, who died Monday. He was 79.

“Everybody called him Coach,” Holeman Love said. “He was Coach, and to so many people, he was like a second dad. He was the greatest.”

Jenkins’ heart gave out in the wee hours Monday, his family said, and Rock Hill might never again see the likes of the man whose title was track coach, but whose calling was life coach.

Jenkins was a two-time national track coach of the year. He won every award for track and cross country coaching there is and played a role in the development of runners and jumpers who were Olympic hopefuls.

But Jenkins always wanted to talk about the young people who had run and jumped for him and gone on to great things in life. Track was the sport. Life was the game.

Bob Jenkins never cut anybody from a team.

If you could walk, you could run for Coach Jenkins. If a boy ran sprints like he was carrying a safe on his back, he could run distance races. If a girl couldn’t run distance races, field events were out there.

Nobody was told he or she was not good enough.

That was because when Jenkins was a kid decades ago, he went to military school, the son of a single mother whose father walked out when Jenkins was in first grade.

Jenkins never forgot what it was like for kids who had no father at home, with maybe only a coach to fill that role.

“He wanted every one of those kids to succeed,” said his wife of 54 years, Margaret Jenkins. “He won when they won.”

Jenkins coached track at York Comprehensive and Rock Hill high schools through the early 1970s, then for a quarter-century at Northwestern High until retiring in the mid 1990s.

He won seven state titles, and his athletes won countless championships.

Jenkins drove the bus to track meets, cleaned the scraped knees and soothed bruised egos. He took kids to the beaches and mountains to run and see and learn and live. He took black kids from Boyd Hill and white kids from the mill hills.

“He would drive children home, always do whatever he could to make sure that all of them, everybody, had a chance,” said daughter Mary Mallette Jenkins Wood. “He was devoted. And the kids loved him.

“So many of them called him ‘Dad,’ because that’s what he was – a dad for the kids who needed one.”

When South Pointe High School opened in 2005, Jenkins started the track program there.

York County’s annual high school track meet is named for him, because Bob Jenkins is track and field and cross country in York County.

He coached Olympic hopefuls and those who came in last in every race – including one of his own daughters.

“But he always said I never quit,” Meg Jenkins Locke said Monday. “He said that about everyone. He wanted everyone to do the best that they could do, to try, to not give up.”

Locke owns the Groucho’s Deli on Cherry Road across from Winthrop University. The outdoor signs there Monday read: “Bob Jenkins is celebrating his final victory. We love you Coach. 1933-2013.”

Jenkins took the sport of track from a cinder track at an elementary school – one track in all of Rock Hill in the late 1960s, then track meets run on dirt and in sawdust – to dizzying heights. He coached champions in every category and at state and national meets.

In retirement, he raised a ton of money for causes for those without means.

Ian Davidson has spent the last 40 years competing in marathons and other races. He said he owes much of his competitive spirit to Jenkins, whom Davidson credits with helping motivate him to beat cancer, too.

“He was my coach for a lifetime,” said Davidson, 58. “Me and so many others.” Davidson and other’s who once ran for Jenkins will be pallbearers at his funeral later this week. Arrangements had not been finalized on Monday.

Jenkins’ other job at schools was counselor, because he wanted to help kids find their way in life. If it was athletics, great. If not, fine. Academics, even better. Both, super.

One time, more than 40 years ago, Jenkins told a teenaged kid that he would become a half-miler on the track team. The kid had already been told that his future was making $2.25 an hour at a textile mill in Rock Hill, his only dream a new Mustang with an eight-track player in it.

That young guy’s name was Connie Grant, and he learned to run. Grant ran all the time, and he ran right off to college in 1971 – the first-ever college student in his family. He later coached with Jenkins for a couple of years and went on to a life in teaching and school administration in Rock Hill schools.

“Coach Bob Jenkins changed my life,” Grant, now 60, said plainly on one of the saddest days of his life.

Jenkins taught young people to try, to follow through, Grant said.

“He takes someone else’s children and makes men and women out of them,” he said.

Just two weeks ago, at the annual Bob Jenkins York County track meet, Jenkins was there.

It was Coach’s last meet.

He cheered on every competitor, because for Coach Bob Jenkins, anybody who tried his best was a winner.

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