Walt Crawford conquered many challenges many would never dare attempt.
After dropping out of Eastern Illinois University to join the Marines, he returned to complete a degree as an adult. He ran 60-plus-mile races and become one of the nation’s best distance runners. And he devoted his life to teaching troubled inner-city youth.
In the end, a paralyzing neurodegenerative disorder – amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease – became a most unwelcome battle, but one that Crawford fought with his characteristic strength, tenacity and dignity.
After his death in August at age 57, Crawford’s friends and former teammates worked together to establish the Walter L. Crawford Memorial Distance Running Scholarship, which will benefit countless EIU students, in keeping with the way Crawford lived his life.
Crawford was a member of EIU’s cross country team that won NCAA II cross country championships in 1968 and 1969. He later returned to EIU’s track and cross country teams while completing his degree in the mid-1970s.
For more than a quarter century, he taught children with behavioral disorders caused by drug-addicted parents in the inner city of Chicago.
Through the years, he continued to run, finding much success, including a sixth-place finish in the 1977 Chicago Marathon. In the early to mid-‘80s, he was a top competitor in 50-mile and 100-kilometer races.
Then, in 2001, he was diagnosed with ALS.
”Even after the ALS became apparent, he tried to continue to jog, placing his uncontrollable left arm in a sling,” said Tom Woodall, who was Crawford’s cross country coach at EIU. “But it soon became apparent he could no longer run. So he walked.”
And although he was unable to raise his arms for the last two years of his life, he found ways to eat, get dressed and take care of personal hygiene, Woodall said.
“He never once complained about his disability, and though he lived alone, he rarely sought help, preferring to find a way by himself,” Woodall said.
Because Crawford could not type, former EIU runners and friends purchased a computer for him with a voice-recognition program, which allowed him to e-mail and perform Internet searches.
Even up to the day before his death, he was locating stories, photos and video footage of historic races and runners and e-mailing them to runners around the country.
The Walter L. Crawford Memorial Distance Running Scholarship is an excellent way “to honor his memory and the ways in which he encouraged the EIU distance running family,” Woodall said.To make a tax-deductible contribution to the Walter L. Crawford Memorial Distance Running Scholarship, please contact Nancy Page at the EIU Foundation at 217-581-3314.