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In a family of achievers, Clifton West found success right on track

Video: Clifton West honored by Sacramento Running Association’s Hall of Fame

In a family of achievers, Clifton West, older brother of activist Cornel West, found success right on track. The former high school state champion and Olympic Trials finalist will enter the Sacramento Running Hall of Fame.
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In a family of achievers, Clifton West, older brother of activist Cornel West, found success right on track. The former high school state champion and Olympic Trials finalist will enter the Sacramento Running Hall of Fame.

At the moment, the merest fraction of a second before the runner with “JFK” emblazoned across his scrawny chest snapped the finish-line tape, an Oakland newspaper photographer pressed a button and preserved everything you need to know about Clifton West and his exceptional Sacramento family.

The setting: The 1968 state prep track and field meet at UC Berkeley’s Edwards Stadium.

The race: The mile run.

The result: West, a senior from John F. Kennedy High School, 4:09; Tom Davidson, of El Cajon High, 4:09.5.

The photograph: West hitting the tape with arms raised, Davidson hitting the crushed cinder track, body splayed.

The next day’s headline: “The Agony and the Ecstasy.”

Even now, nearly 50 years after the fact, the photo is arresting and leaves the viewer, and West, too, almost breathless. This, you think, is the very embodiment of youth. West is captured in midstride, slightly airborne, as if he might take flight, arms at shoulder height, head tilted skyward and his face ... well, you can study the expression for a long time and still not fully discern all it contains. It is a study in contradictions, nothing less than a smiling rictus. Is he agonizingly ecstatic or ecstatically agonized? Is he rejoicing or hurting? Both or neither?

Ask West, who this week will be enshrined in the Sacramento Running Association’s Hall of Fame, to study the photo and recount his emotions, and he segues into an real-time monologue, as if the race were unfolding now and not decades ago.

He came to the state meet with only the 13th-fastest qualifying time. Nobody, save his coach and maybe West himself, expected him to contend. Davidson had not lost a race in two years. Through the first three laps, West had run faster than he ever had, 3:09, but still trailed. On the backstretch of the final lap, totally spent, he struggled to keep pace. But on that final turn, the crowd on its feet and roaring, something came over West, some innate drive for success that has been a family legacy. He accelerated – “kicked,” in track parlance – and pushed on, spikes flying.

“I thought, ‘By God, I’ve come all this way, I’m going to win, period,’ ” West, 65, recalled. “I was hurting, real bad. But I went by (Davidson) like he was standing still. The beautiful thing about running is that it’s an exercise in revelation and development. It teaches you who you are, what you have inside, your capabilities and how to get there. It’s all about that.”

As something of a coda to the story, the next weekend at the then-nationally prominent Golden West Invitational at Hughes Stadium in Sacramento, where legendary milers such as Jim Ryun and Marty Liquori had won track’s signature event in previous years, West did it again – coming from behind in the final 50 yards (no metric measurements back then) to win. This time, as he broke the tape, many in the hometown crowd of 6,000 flooded onto the track to engulf West, who, struggling for breath, was worried he might expire in the joyous melee that ensued.

“You don’t forget things like that,” he said. “Amazing how moments so long ago still resonate at this late date.”

The thing is, in a family like the Wests, such success was not unusual. It’s not as if they expected it or felt entitled to it; it’s just that they worked so tirelessly for it. Don’t call them overachievers, though. There’s little “over” about it. They earned their accomplishments, through fortitude and faith, in a segregated era with all the inherent struggles that implied for black families.

Clifton’s kid brother, Cornel, is the most widely known West, a public intellectual and liberal firebrand who is a best-selling author, actor (“Matrix” movies), radio host, spoken-word recording artist, former Harvard and Princeton philosophy professor and eternal political gadfly. Clifton the elder, family patriarch, worked as a civilian employee at McClellan Air Force Base and was an elder at Shiloh Baptist Church. Matriarch Irene was a respected educator for decades in the Sacramento area, so beloved that a school, Irene B. West Elementary, was named for her in Elk Grove. Sisters Cynthia and Cheryl have just retired after long careers in local and state government.

And then there’s Clifton III, more than just a track star, though undeniably one of the nation’s best in the early 1970s.

While Cornel was graduating from Harvard at age 20 and working on a doctorate, Clifton was chasing multiple dreams. He made it to the finals of the 1972 U.S. Olympic Trials in the mile, but didn’t qualify. Then, after graduating from UC Berkeley, he embarked on a business career, first at IBM and then, in 1976, he became one of the first black owners of a computer software firm. He later restarted his running career, this time as a sprinter – almost unheard of in track, a miler turned 100- and 200-meter specialist – and made the 1977 U.S. 4x400-meter relay team that competed on the world track circuit. He also coached track at Cal, MIT and, for a spell, Sacramento’s Christian Brothers High School.

So what made Clifton run? The mile certainly wasn’t his only path to notoriety, given the rigorous academic emphasis instilled by his parents early on. But he definitely was running toward, not away from, something. Always self-motivated and exacting, he epitomized the family work ethic and its belief in personal accountability.

“One time, during Little League, Clifton was out in the field and the team lost a game they were about to win because a player didn’t do what he was supposed to, and Clifton got angry,” his mother, Irene, said. “Driving home, he said, ‘You know, Daddy, I never want to be on a team where I have to depend on someone else’s actions to have a victory.’ He never played again and went to track. He said, ‘If I don’t make it, it’s me to blame.’ 

Struggle, and a bit of sass, is part of the family DNA. Clifton was something of a mentor to Cornel, even though he was only 2 1/2 years older. In a 1973 profile in The Bee, Cornel said Clifton taught him to read at age 3 because, “it seemed natural that if he could read, I should be able to.” In a 2009 memoir, Cornel recounted an incident in third grade when he was roughed up by a teacher because he refused to stand for the morning flag salute. Cornel, in turn, slugged the teacher. Clifton and other classmates came to Cornel’s defense.

“What’s my relationship with my big brother?” Cornel asked, repeating a question during a phone interview. “Like wet on water. Like white on rice. We’ve been joined at the hip since the day I was born. There’s no one like Cliff. You’ll never meet a man more Christ-like, more (John) Coltrane-like, more Martin Luther King-like. I’ll never be half the human being he is. He’s always had my back.”

Clifton shrugged, said he just did what any big brother would do, keeping an eye on the little squirt. Clifton recalled that teacher-slugging incident with a sly smile, but waited until his mother left the room to tell it because, sotto voce, “it wasn’t one of our proudest moments.”

He continued: “So those were the days when it was OK to hit a child in school, and we knew this other male teacher was going to come after Corn. We raided the (school) equipment shed and got bats and stuff. It was family. I knew Corn was going to catch it when he got home, anyway, because he deserved (punishment) for hitting the teacher, but I understood why he did it, too.”

Early on, Clifton said, he knew Cornel was special. But then, as Irene insists, all the West children had that distinction.

“Cornel is very fiery,” Clifton said. “I have a longer fuse. There’s a picture of Corn and me sitting face to face. He was 5 and I was 8. Look into our eyes. There’s fire in both of them, but you see something in Corn’s you don’t see in mine.”

Irene said Clifton served as almost an authority figure to Cornel.

“Clifton would say, ‘You know, Cornel, you just need to stop it. You’re acting up too much,’ ” Irene said. “It looked like it jolted him. His daddy would tell him the same thing and so would I, but he listened to Clifton.”

Clifton may be less voluble than Cornel, less overt in his activism, but he’s been no less dedicated to civil rights causes. It’s just taken subtler forms. As a runner, he went on a quest to become the first American-born black to break four minutes in the mile, an event then dominated by white runners. He came within two seconds – “a long two seconds,” he said, wryly. Still, there was honor in the attempt, he said, to show in that earlier era that blacks could excel at more than just sprint events.

Never a hurdler on the track, West nonetheless encountered barriers in the business world, circa early 1970s. Once, working for IBM, he made a cold call on a potential client, and stood amazed when the police were summoned.

“They couldn’t believe I actually worked for IBM,” he said. “The officer put me in the (squad) car. I said, ‘I really do work for IBM.’ He said, ‘Well, we’ll find out’ and escorted me in the (IBM) building to my manager.”

Another story Clifton likes to recall comes from his early struggles as a software consultant, and it shows the same arch and pointed spirit for which Cornel is known.

He was chatting up a client, who asked West why he left IBM to start his own company. West told him he was pursuing the “American dream – make as much money as I can when I can.” The client walked to a window and said, “I know what you really want. All you people want is a Cadillac. Well, I’m not going to be the one to buy you a Cadillac like mine out there.”

West was stunned by the less-than-subtle racism. His business partner wanted to cut ties with the client, but West wouldn’t back down. When West’s work for the client had ended, the check freshly deposited, he returned to visit the client.

“My mom and dad had gone on vacation in Africa, and they had a Cadillac at home, same year, same color, everything,” West said. “I borrowed it and parked it next to the guy’s Cadillac. I went up to his office, took him to the window and said, ‘I just want to thank you, man, for giving me this opportunity.’ And I pointed to the Cadillac (parked) right next to his. I said, ‘Without you, it couldn’t have happened, my brother.’ 

He laughed at the retelling, the same full-bodied, almost doubled-over, laugh you’ll see from Cornel at public appearances. But Clifton is more even-keeled, a reserve attributable more to dignity than diffidence. He does not sport the vertically impressive Afro his brother favors; in fact, he’s got classic male-pattern baldness. (“I told Corn, ‘Don’t get a haircut, because this is what happens. Won’t grow back.”)

He said of his hall-of-fame enshrinement, “I’m still not convinced I’m deserving.”

He seems content in his latest corporate job at Pacific Coast Producers, a fruit processing company in Lodi. He relishes being a deacon at Shiloh Baptist Church in Sacramento, enjoys spending time with his wife, Leticia, three grown children, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

He no longer runs, following a heart attack a few years back – he had just started singing a solo gospel tune in church when it hit – but walks daily for exercise.

“I tapped out for a while; they had to use the paddles on me,” he said of his heart attack. “By the time I got to the hospital, man, I was done. They put me in a (medically induced) coma for three days. But I came out it. I’m fine. It’s really a miracle.”

His Lazurus-style recovery is, perhaps, to be expected from a member of the extraordinary West family, doggedly determined, fiercely competitive, smiling through the pain and enduring every struggle.

Sam McManis: 916-321-1145, @SamMcManis

Sacramento Running Association Hall of Fame event

When: 6 p.m. Saturday

Where: Holiday Inn Capital Plaza, 300 J St., Sacramento

Cost: $50; runsra.org/hall-of-fame

Inductees: Clifton West (miler); Bob King (prep coach); Alex Kosinski (middle-distance runner); Jim Howard (ultramarathoner); Greg Soderlund (race director emeritus, Western States 100 Mile Run).

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