Exhibit honors Lawrence exercise guru Red Dog and wife, Beverly
photo by: Elvyn Jones
Founding a Lawrence institution was not on the mind of Don “Red Dog” Gardner when he helped start a summer-conditioning program 36 years ago for Lawrence High School athletes.
“Oh no,” he said. “That never crossed my mind. We had six athletes the first year.”
Nonetheless, the idea of a summer-conditioning program caught on in the community. A new exhibit, which will run through Sept. 18, at the Watkins Museum of History tells the story of what came to be called Red Dog Days’ growth from a program meant to keep LHS athletes fit during the off-season to a community phenomenon with 500 to 600 participants of all ages. Gardner, then a volunteer LHS athletic trainer, founded the program in 1984 with Jim “Punkin” O’Connell with the blessing of former LHS Principal Brad Tate.
“He said, ‘You can do it, but you can’t use any balls,'” Don said, explaining rules at the time that restricted high school athletes from participating in organized practices.
Enjoying a viewing of the exhibit Saturday with Gardner was his wife, Beverly Gardner. The display features many photographs through the years of participants and leaders who helped with instruction. For the Gardners, every photo has a story.
“Those people there. They could run all day,” Don said of a photograph of past program leaders Julie Hatfield, Kevin Liu and Steve Allen.
Beverly has been a fixture of Red Dog Days since 1994, the year before she and Don married. They both agree that she tightened the ship when she took over the program’s administration.
“I brought structure,” she said. “I made people sign in.”
Don admits he ran a more informal program, allowing participants to take Red Dog Days T-shirts if they asked, rather than get them when they completed the required number of program days. But he did have some rules.
“I told the kids, ‘Don’t be puking on my track,'” he said of the athletic track at the University of Kansas football stadium that was the program’s home for 20 years.
That order may have been barked through a bullhorn, which the former Marine started using in 1995. The white bullhorn in the display was the third he used through the years to give exercise instructions, he said. He borrowed the first from LHS baseball coach Ron Garvin.
“I used it because I broke my ribs and couldn’t shout,” Don said. “When I returned the bullhorn, Coach Garvin came to me and said it wasn’t working. I took it to the high school maintenance shop and got it fixed.”
The Gardners have worked with other communities interested in duplicating Red Dog Days, and Baldwin City has had its Bull Dawg Days for years, Don said. The Red Dog Days T-shirts also give the program visibility.
“People tell us they see T-shirts when they are on vacation,” Beverly said. “People see them everywhere.”
The COVID-19 pandemic forced this year’s Red Dog Days to go virtual, with participants taking part in workouts via the Red Dog Days Facebook page. But Don and Beverly are already planning for better Red Dog Days ahead.
“Next year, we’ll be at South Park,” Don said.