Friends, family members, fellow Kansas University sports legends and American Legion officials assembled Monday afternoon at Plymouth Congregational Church to bid farewell to a father, a grandfather, a Marine and one of the all-time great milers.
Wes Santee never claimed to be perfect, nor did he apologize for his imperfections. Instead, he always ran toward the next challenge, tackled the next dispute, engaged in the next conversation.
Susie Santee, Wes’ daughter, delivered poignant memories of the man the AAU loved to hate, denying him a shot at the 1,500 meters gold medal in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki because he had already qualified to run the 5,000 meters, and later banning him for life from competing beyond the age of 24 for being too honest about how much expense money he received.
“After dinner, we would turn on the 8-track and listen to Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Johnny Cash,” Susie said. “I would plead with him to allow me to stand on the tops of his feet while he danced us around the room.”
For a night cap, father and daughter would share a Tab and a frozen Snickers.
She talked of the lessons she learned from her dad: “How to take care of the boat, what to feed the birds, and how to scare away the beavers, so they wouldn’t eat your house.”
Growing up as one of 10 children in Rochester, N.Y., I knew Kansas as a track school first, a basketball school second. My father, older brothers and I many times crammed into the den to watch Jim Ryun kicking his way to another great mile time. The announcers mentioned other great milers from Kansas. Years later, when I heard mention of a new hit movie, “The Great Santini,” I was eager to learn more about the pre-Ryun miler. As it turned out, the movie had nothing to do with Wes Santee, but it did feature a Marine who was flawed as a father.
Wes was a colonel in the Marines and he described his father as “mean.”
“He throws a blacksmith hammer at me one day and hit me in the right arm, and it hurt,” Wes told me.
Instead of riding with him back to the house after a long day of work on the Ashland farm, Wes ran home. He ran five miles to and from school.
Susie said her father told her he wasn’t worthy of all the good things in his life.
“I guess those seeds of self-doubt planted years and years ago on a ranch in western Kansas are hard to overcome,” she said.
In eulogizing her father, whom she called her “best friend,” Susie thanked him “for not being perfect, because nobody is.”
The imperfect man never ran the perfect mile, but he came so close. He brought smiles to so many faces and flashed an unforgettable one of his own.
From the sound of it, he also was a far better father to his children than his father was to him.