GENEVA — Hank Pearson’s love affair with track and field started when he was in elementary school. It was a love seeded by envy.
The older middle school students would end their school year with a field-day competition, and their younger peers were invited to watch. Pearson recalls he couldn’t wait to be older for his turn on the track.
By the time he was a middle-schooler, Pearson already had his eye on the track team. Mike Canale, the coach at the time, recalls Pearson coming up to him in the hallway asking if he could join as an eighth-grader. The day before the season started Pearson said Canale told him he could, if he passed a fitness test. He did, of course. Canale is pretty sure Pearson became Geneva’s first eighth-grade varsity track athlete.
Today, at 57, Pearson is still competing. Perhaps more important, though, he’s sharing the skills he’s learned over a lifetime at the track with new generations of athletes.
Pearson was born in Geneva to John and Catherine Pearson, the second youngest of 12 children in a blended family. His father was a truck driver and his mother worked at the Salvation Army. The 1983 Geneva High School graduate lived at Chartres Homes (now Courtyard Apartments) and recalls a childhood with family fishing vacations to the Thousand Islands and a neighborhood where “everybody played with each other outside (usually hoops). Everybody was being active.”
Sports were where Pearson could excel, be busy, meet others from surrounding communities and stay motivated for school. At 6 feet, 2 inches tall and “built like an ox “ according to a friend, he was a natural athlete. He loved basketball and football, playing both throughout high school. But track was his calling.
Although he loved the team sports, Pearson said he soon realized that other basketball or football players were better than him. He gravitated toward the individual nature of track and field.
“With track, if it’s win or lose it’s on me,” he said. “I liked that.”
When asked which events he did, Pearson quipped “it might be easier to tell you what I didn’t do.” That would be, essentially the pole vault and distance races.
Pearson was primarily a sprinter, jumper and hurdler. He ran the 100, 200 and 400 meter sprints and the 100 hurdles and competed in the long, triple and high jumps. He also was a member of several relay teams. On occasion he would throw the discus and shot put.
Initially, he said the long jump was his favorite event, and he was wary of the triple jump. The first time he saw the triple jump in action the competitor fell on the runway leading up to the pit (at that time there was no rubbery surface, just asphalt).
“When he fell and got all scraped up I wanted no part of the triple jump,” Pearson laughed.
But he eventually gave it a try, encountering much success and even some admiration for the event.
“When you learn how to do it right it’s nice to see and nice to do,” he said.
A natural athlete and coach
Canale said Pearson was not only the first eighth-grader to compete on varsity track, but over his five years, he became the program’s all-time scoring leader. He could do 11 different events and happily moved around depending on the team’s need. He was chosen as the most versatile track athlete his junior year, the most valuable his senior year and was elected to the Geneva Sports Hall of Fame in 2012.
Canale called him “one of the finest athletes I’ve ever coached.”
“He probably won at one point or another every one of (those 11 events),” Canale said, adding Pearson’s love for the sport “is in his DNA.”
In addition, his former coach said Pearson also was a “leader, gentleman, ambassador and classy guy on and off the track.” He was team captain his junior and senior years and would carry the flag when the team did what was called “The Red Wave.” Canale said the athletes, in their red uniforms, would line up around the track 5 to 10 yards apart and run around the oval, creating a moving sea of red in the process.
“He was the leader and the kids wanted him to be the leader,” he said. “We had so much fun.”
Opponents, other coaches and officials also liked and respected him.
“He’s a people person, fun and he’s a competitor,” Canale said. “Plus he works hard. That’s a good combination.”
By the time he was a senior, Pearson and a few others were dabbling in some coaching duties. He was tasked with working with the jumpers (no surprise there) and pocketed the workouts Canale provided, saving them for the future.
After graduating in ‘83, Pearson was not able to say goodbye to the sport he loved so much and continued as a volunteer coach for his old team through 1989. In the late 1980s he also was helping Mark Pitifer coach junior varsity basketball at Waterloo when Pitifer was offered the Waterloo outdoor track job in 1990. Naturally, Pitifer asked Pearson to lend a hand as a volunteer assistant.
It wasn’t the first time the two worked together. Pitifer, who is five years older, was a playground leader at Chartres Homes with the Geneva recreation program. Pearson participated and Pitifer remembers that he not only excelled in all sports but was an “old soul.” He had a knack for helping coach the youngsters, who would play basketball and softball against kids at other playground programs.
The two coached track together for 13 years before Pitifer took a coaching job at Geneva and Pearson elected to stay in Waterloo, where he was formally hired as an assistant in 2006. Throughout his 30 years in that district’s track program he has focused on helping the jumpers and throwers both in indoor and outdoor track. Pitifer said Pearson is the epitome of what a parent wants in a coach: He’s kind and caring, and doesn’t berate young athletes.
“He’s always lifting you up and never makes much of a fuss if you lose,” Pitifer said.
Plus he’s deeply knowledgeable about the sport. Pitifer should know; he attributes his gold medal at the Empire State Games to Pearson’s suggestion. When he was 43, Pitifer was chasing a dream of competing in the Empire State Games in the triple jump, an event he did in high school.
Pearson also was competing in those games and offered a kernel of advice that Pitifer believes made all the difference. Pitifer had been jumping in his sneakers but Pearson encouraged him to make his final jump in spikes, which catapulted him to the lead after his final jump.
“It worked, I won the championship,” Pitifer recalled. “If there was no Hank Pearson, there would be no gold medal hanging up in my attic.”
Practices what he preaches
The fact that Pearson doesn’t rest on his high school laurels but is still lacing up his track shoes and competing in senior field events in New York — even nationally — is what Pitifer calls “frosting on the cake” when it comes to his credentials as a coach.
He thinks it makes the young athletes listen even more to Pearson; it’s a classic matter of not do what I say but do what I do. When Pearson was helping out his former team in Geneva, Canale said it was clear the young athletes respected him because “he had been there, done that.”
That itch to compete sent Pearson in 2000 to the Empire State Games in the masters division, where true to his versatility he has competed in the javelin, shot put, discus, hammer throw and early on in the 55- and 100-meter dashes.
“I’m not able to jump anymore so I throw things,” he said.
Those things include the javelin, a new event in which he has excelled. Pearson had run into Chuck Yost, a seniors athlete at the Waterloo track, who was practicing the javelin and gave him a crash course in its use.
“It went up the way it was supposed to go so I said thank you and went home and ordered one,” Pearson said.
The purchase paid off. Over the years Pearson has won a number of javelin events and collected quite a bit of hardware on the state and national levels in various events and age groups: in all, 22 gold medals, 13 silver and 10 bronze.
Pearson, who has worked at the Canandaigua VA for 31 years (currently as a recreation therapy assistant), hopes to retire in 2024 and has visions of traveling and competing — at the same time. Already he’s been to national State Games of America events in Hershey, Pa; San Diego; Colorado Springs; and Grand Rapids, Mich.
“I’m using the track to get around the country,” he said. “The javelin is my bread and butter, but I’m getting better at the hammer and the discus.”
Pearson said the late Harry Schwarze, a longtime Waterloo coach, worked with him on his discus and shot put technique, which he would often practice beside his young athletes “because I’m too tired to do it at home.”
His former athletes speak highly of a committed mentor — they call him Coach Skittles because of his easily spotted bright neon hats at meets — who is always patient and supportive.
Among those student-athletes who practiced and competed side by side with Pearson was 2016 Waterloo High School graduate Mady Dibble, who was crowned state discus champion her senior year.
Dibble competed at the collegiate level at Assumption College in Massachusetts and at The College at Brockport, but before that spent six years in Pearson’s orbit (her favorite hat of his was a pink one). She started track as a seventh-grader and, by the following year, was on varsity. She is currently finishing up her kinesiology studies at Brockport and hopes to coach at the college level.
Her main coach was Schwarze until Pearson stepped in after his death in 2015, providing not only coaching but emotional support during a difficult transition, Dibble said.
“It didn’t matter if you were having a bad day; he could brighten it up in a second,” she said.
Dibble also got to see her coach’s driven nature up close; the two would often attend summer meets in Penfield and compete side by side, deepening the coach/athlete relationship. They also would share tips picked up at any clinics each might attend.
“He showed me sports can be in my life forever,” Dibble said.
Tony Soto of Waterloo, who graduated in 2011, spent three years on Waterloo’s outdoor track team and two years on its indoor squad. Like Pearson, he did “a little bit of everything” and because of that versatility ended up competing in the pentathlon (which includes the 110-meter hurdles, long jump, shot put, high jump and 1,500-meter run).
He called Pearson a “genuine” person with a deep commitment to his athletes. Pearson would stay after practice with Soto to work on his starts or meet him at Seneca Lake for an extra workout.
“If I wanted to put in the extra work he would put in the extra work,” said Soto, who went on to compete at both Finger Lakes Community College and Alfred State.
Soto transitioned to the decathlon in college but an injury forced him to just throw the javelin. At outdoor regionals, while he was competing for Alfred State, Pearson surprised Soto but showing up to watch.
“Then I had a monster throw,” he recalled. “It was a blessing and great to have him there.”
Bree McConnell of Seneca Falls also has fond memories of Pearson cheering her on — and he wasn’t even her school coach.
McConnell, a 2018 graduate of Mynderse Academy, attended Waterloo practices after her own team’s practices to take advantage of Pearson’s throwing expertise (McConnell competed in indoor track only, focusing on the shot put and weight throw).
“I’d go from one practice to the next,” said McConnell, adding she improved under the direction of Pearson and the Waterloo athletes.
Because she was fairly new to the sport, McConnell said Pearson took the time to assess her skills and go over basic techniques, for which she was deeply appreciative.
“He would also practice with us and run with us,” she remembered, adding he’s a very determined coach “who always hated when anyone would say ‘I can’t do that.’”
The fact that Pearson would take a non-Waterloo athlete under his wing is not surprising. Waterloo Athletic Director Christal Kent — who described Pearson as patient, always smiling and never bad tempered — noted he’s always welcoming of new athletes who want to give track and field a try.
“He takes them in like they were always doing track and field,” she said. “He’s just happy there’s somebody new who’s trying it out.”
Pearson is not all about track. He’s also a percussionist who has played in Geneva bands with Pitifer, Diana Modera, and Tom McClure, the teacher who introduced him to the drums as a fourth-grader.
“It’s not a money maker but just a lot of fun,” he said.
But track is his medium — offering the opportunity to set goals and share his lifelong passion with athletes just starting out. After missing last spring’s high school outdoor and this winter’s indoor seasons, he’s more than ready to resume this spring (though not one to squander opportunity, Pearson said he’s been using the extra time to work out).
When he competed in Grand Rapids he recalls watching different age groups run the 200 meters and seeing a 75-year-old, arms pumping, eclipse the competition by 20 meters and win the race in a time of 30 seconds.
“I’m like, ‘I’m gonna be like (him),’” he said, adding the National Senior Games is on his bucket list.
Punching that ticket is hard work. And that’s the lesson Pearson hopes he’s imparting to his young athletes. High school sports will be a blip in their lives, but he believes effort and diligence pay off both in sports and “... when you get out into the world.”
“If you like it, do it the best you can.”