WORCESTER – On Sunday, June 2, the City of Worcester will celebrate “Charlie Epstein Day” at Elm Park with the unveiling of a memorial in honor of Charlie’s Surplus owner Charlie Epstein and his race, Charlie’s 10-Mile Road Race.
The memorial — which will be a concrete bench with a plaque above it — will be placed at the entrance of Elm Park near Russell St. [and across from Williams St. – see photo below] — where the finish line was placed for Charlie’s road race.
“The plaque tells a beautiful story of the history of the race — it gives everyone an opportunity to not just stand there and read it, but it’s being built in the shape of a big bench with a plaque on top that tells a story. People can come and read it and sit with their family members,” said Charlie Epstein’s son, Mark “Pathfinder” Epstein, in an interview last week with ThisWeekinWorcester.com [TWIW].
“The purpose of the plaque is preserving one of Worcester’s great sports traditions,” Epstein added.
Charlie’s Road Race originated in May 1976 on Highland St. in Worcester and went on for nine spectacular years showcasing the who’s who of runners across the United States — including four-time Boston Marathon winner Billy Rodgers.
Each year the race course would be lined from beginning to end with nearly 20,000 spectators and fans. In 1984, the race was named one of the Top 100 Road Races in the world.
“[The race] grew so quickly and it took off immediately,” Mark Epstein said — in part due to the popularity of Charlie’s Surplus, but also because of who was running.
Rodgers won the 1975 Boston Marathon — and then won three straight from 1978-1980 and was a four time winner of the New York City marathon between 1976 to 1980.
According to Epstein, Rodgers ran Charlie’s Road Race as his warm-up for the Olympic qualifiers.
“[Rodgers] went from a regional celebrity to a world-class phenomenon within a year or two. He won the Boston Marathon and qualified for the Olympics. It all happened in the time of our race,” Epstein said. “I don’t give that enough credit sometimes, but I always mention it. Between Billy and my dad, and the popularity they had, there was no way our race wouldn’t succeed.”
An Honor More than Twenty Years in the Making
In 1998, the Worcester City Council voted unanimously to put a Charlie’s Road Race and Charlie Epstein memorial at the former finish line at Elm Park.
So why is the unveiling happening only now, nearly 20 years later?
Mark Epstein said, “When my dad was alive, he knew about it. A few months before he passed away, he admitted that he knew what we were trying to do. He told me, ‘It would be a great honor. Please wait until I’m gone. I’ll be uncomfortable if I’m alive when it happens, but it’s a great honor.’ That was a confusing statement to me. I had to play that over and over again in my head for a long time.’”
Charlie Epstein passed away in 1999.
According to Epstein, there were plenty of reasons why the monument unveiling is only happening now, but the biggest reason was this: he had to be ready.
“I wasn’t ready to come back to Worcester. I had to be comfortable coming back. I had to make sure I was doing it for the right reasons, and when I was ready, I had to be sure sure in my head that I was doing this for my dad and not for me. I had to absolutely be 1,000% sure of that. Even though it’s the biggest honor I’ll ever receive to do for this for my dad, I had to make sure I was ready.”
“I said to myself, ‘If it’s going to happen, it has to happen now. Before the next generation comes along that has never heard of Charlie’s road race. If I don’t pull the trigger real quickly, this thing is dead in the water,’” Epstein said.
“I had to spend so much time preparing the plaque and what it was going to say — to tell the story of the race and of the life of my father. When you read the plaque, you’ll say ‘Woah, he did a good job of blending the two together.’ I put 20 years into it, I had to get it right,” Epstein quipped.
A Celebration of Worcester’s History
Mark Epstein ran the race four times, but was the co-organizer alongside his father for all nine years the race was put on.
One thing Epstein admits he never really understood in those nine years was why his father was so adamant about ending the road race at Elm Park.
Epstein said, “Billy Rodgers came up to me and said, ‘Pathfinder, how come no one else ever used Elm Park as a finish line area?’”
“And I said, ‘Billy, I don’t know. The only thing I can think of is that no sponsor before or after my father ever valued Elm Park the way my dad did. That’s the only answer I can come up with.’”
During the interview, as Epstein considered his father’s reasons for finishing his race at Elm Park, he did recall one nugget from the senior Epstein.
“My dad was friends with [former Worcester Parks Commissioner] Paul Tivnan. And I know my dad always loved the fact that Worcester was home to one of the first public parks in the country [Elm Park was the first public park constructed in America]. I know he got that info from [Tivnan], and I know he always appreciated that fact,” Epstein said.
Additionally, according to Epstein, Charlie Epstein asked running coaches at Doherty High to design the 10-mile course and with these specifications: 1) the race has to occur on the West Side of Worcester, and 2) the race has to end at Elm Park.
“[My father] basically said, ‘I don’t care where the race goes, so long as it’s on that side of the city and that the finish line is somewhere in the park,'” Epstein said.
When Mark Epstein got the ball rolling on his father’s monument, he reached out to the current Asst. DPW Commissioner Rob Antonelli who told Epstein, “The race is part of Elm Park’s history. [The monument] belongs in the park.”
“The Worcester Parks [Dept] couldn’t have been better,” Epstein said. “They almost allowed me the freedom to pick the location.”
“I built it as a bench so everyone that ever ran the race can sit with their children, and their grandchildren and tell the story of Charlie’s Road Race in Worcester — that was once one of the top 100 road races in the world,” he added.
The Greatest Collection of Racers Ever Assembled
The festivities will start on June 2 with a memorial walk at 2:30, followed by “Rockin Ric” Eric Porter and the Sons of the Soil at 3 PM. A speaking portion led by former Worcester Mayor Tim Cooney will follow the entertainment.
The speaking portion will include a poem about Charlie Epstein by former Major League Baseball player and Boston Red Sox hitting coach Richie Hebner and a proclamation by Worcester Mayor Joseph Petty making June 2, 2019 “Charlie Epstein Day.” Mark Epstein will make the concluding remarks before the unveiling of the memorial.
“The potential is going to be for a tremendous crowd. If it’s a nice day, I think Worcester is going to turn out big for this,” Epstein said.
Epstein is expecting a huge crowd but the highlight of the day, according to Epstein, will be the collection of runners returning to Worcester to honor Charlie’s road race.
“This is going to be such a unique reunion,” Epstein said, listing off names like Rodgers, Patti Catalano Dillon, Geoff Smith, Jack Fultz, Bob Hodge, Randy Thomas, Dan Dillon, Freddy Doyle, Mark Murray, Tom Grundy, Dick Hoyt and Tom Derderian. “It will be the greatest collection of racers ever assembled together in Worcester history by a huge amount.”
“Having Billy [Rodgers] back — he hasn’t been in Central Mass. in a long time and I think he’s really looking forward to it,” Epstein added.
What Comes After
What shouldn’t be lost among the great history of Charlie’s road race, his store, and the plans for memorial unveiling and celebration on June 2 is the relationship that allowed the race, the store and, hopefully, the event be a success: the bond between Charlie Epstein and his son, Mark.
In a hilarious story, Mark got his nickname “Pathfinder” from his dad when they were working in their store at Charlie’s Surplus at 116 Water St. According to Mark Epstein, he and his father were best friends and treated each other as such. When they were stocking sleeping bags in the store, the elder Epstein was checking the quality of the sleeping bags in stock and were naming off the brands when they came to a Pathfinder sleeping bag.
Roaring with laughter, Mark Epstein tells the story of how he received an otherwise cool nickname by being the butt of a harmless joke from his father.
“My dad says to me ‘Hey Mark, I’m going to start calling you ‘Pathfinder.’’’
“I said, ‘Oh yeah? Why’s that, dad?’”
“And he says, ‘Because you’re both useless.’”
The laughter erupted on the other end of the line from Epstein who did the interview from his home in South Carolina — where he’s lived for the past 31 years.
When Epstein collected himself and his emotions, he told this reporter something he’s only ever told one other person.
“The greatest day of my life will be June 3,” Mark Epstein told TWIW. “When there’s no one around and I can go down to Elm Park and sit on the monument that I have built like a bench. And I’m by myself. And not only does the race have a home, but I’ll finally have a home back in Worcester again. It’s been my dream for that. My dream isn’t June 2. My dream is June 3 and beyond.”
“I can be myself and with my dad and the memories of what we accomplished together. We created a father and son bond that runs through every ounce of fiber that runs through my entire body. It’s what I think about every day,” Epstein added. “The second I hit New England in my future visits, that memorial will be the first place I go.”
The memorial unveiling event starts at 2:30 on June 2 at Elm Park. Parking is available at Doherty High on Highland St and is a short walk to the park and ceremony.
Lead photo: Entrance of Elm Park at corner of Russell and Elm Streets/Patrick Sargent for ThisWeekinWorcester.com
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