They say a picture is worth a thousand words and if that’s the case, then this image must be worth a few more.
It’s a finish line shot of the unforgettable 1983 Mill Street Run, a 3.8-mile race through Bristol Borough’s venerable streets, with a one-for-the-ages conclusion.
Yes, two high school runners – Eugene “Butch” Oberlander of Harry S Truman and Bill McCafferty of Neshaminy – side by side straining for the chalk line, frozen in time.
The pair of seniors were ultra-competitors in those days 40 years ago. Neither wanted to give an inch, as this event typified. It was a golden age of scholastic cross country, with powerhouse teams at Pennsbury, Council Rock, William Tennent and Holy Ghost Prep.
Mill Street, which will hold its 54th running on Sept. 9, was started by HGP coach John Mundy and he’s still involved in the classic race to this day.
So much time has gone by and what was once a competitive association between the two young runners has become a respectful relationship for two men now in their late 50s.
It took awhile but they came to realize that each made the other better throughout the early ‘80s and from that came acknowledgement that situation couldn’t have happened without the other.
“Locally, he was the only one who could really give me that push I needed,” said Oberlander in a recent phone call. “He pushed me to that next level.”
It was an all-out battle from the start. The two hit the one-mile mark in 4:50, the two-mile line at 9:40 and reached the end location at 18:35, just three seconds off the course record.
“The positive feeling coming away from that race was that we both gave it our all,” Oberlander said. “Neither one of us could stand after we crossed the line. We couldn’t have run a better race. We knew the rest of that season was going to be a battle.
“We came to the realization that each of us was as strong as the other. What would be the possibility of having a tie like that again?”
Oberlander went on to be a No. 1 running star at both Bucks County Community College and Trenton State College (now the College of New Jersey) before serving in the Irag/Gulf War, mostly dealing with helicopters in the early ‘90s. He spent a total of eight years in the U.S. armed forces.
The two runners still stay in touch and have a chance to reminisce. Bill is married to former Council Rock High School running great Dana Menago, who now coaches the running programs at New Hope-Solebury High School.
“I talk to Bill every now and then,” Oberlander said. “We go to church with his parents. About a year after the race, we began to have more respect for one another.”
Added McCafferty, now a physical therapist with an office in New Hope: “We reconnected only about four years ago. Mill Street was always one of Dana’s favorite events so she wanted to take her team back there. And that’s when Butch and I reconnected. So now each year we chat and catch up with each other.”
The back-and-forth flow to the last mile reminded some of a Triple Crown horse race.
“To be totally honest with you, I didn’t know he was in that kind of shape going into that race,” Oberlander said. “I figured I would be able to pull away the last mile. It just wasn’t happening. He changed gears a couple times. I can’t tell you how many times the lead changed hands.
“It was cat-and-mouse. I would move ahead a couple feet and he would pull me back in. Even after we turned on to Mill Street (near the finish line) there were three or four lead exchanges down that final stretch.”
McCafferty saw it a similar way.
“The thing I remember is the two of us separated from the rest of the pack early,” he said. “We ran side-by-side for almost the entire race. Coming around the corner on that final straight, I surged ahead. And honestly, I didn’t think he was coming back. But he was a tenacious kid. He had so much heart and he was a hammer.
“He came back at me. He showed guts.”
Both schools being members of the Suburban One National Division, McCafferty and Oberlander were bound to meet again.
During the season, McCafferty prevailed in an invitational meet in New Jersey. He also came out on top in the Suburban One meet but Oberlander gained some revenge by finishing on top of his rival at districts. Ultimately, McCafferty returned the favor in the PIAA state meet.
In their junior year, it was the other way around. While McCafferty won the league meet, Oberlander was ahead in districts and states.
The Mill Street ruling was controversial at the time.
“I still remember the officials saying they go by the torso,” Oberlander said. “It’s very hard to tell if you look at the angle from the front. If I were an official, I would have a hard time making that call as well.”
Oberlander has been a teacher in the Bristol Township School District for 26 years. He coached runners for the better part of 28 years.
He tries to stay active in running but as the years go by it doesn’t get any easier. He likes to spend time with his family, including wife Christine. They have a son, Joe, 25, who just graduated from military police school in Missouri and a daughter, Alicia, 21, who is going to be a sophomore with an education major at Holy Family University.
To this day, Mill Street lives on, which is a pretty cool deal for guys like Oberlander and McCafferty.
“I think it’s a neat thing,” Oberlander said. “My hat goes off to John Mundy to keep it alive as long as he has. Teams keep showing up and that’s a tribute to John.”
Mundy knows it’s unlikely we will ever see another race like this again.
“Two great runners,” he said. “They persevered. That finish made the race come alive. Our mission was to draw people to Bristol and it worked.”
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