Of the many officials who have diligently served the APSOC, few have left a greater mark or legacy than Ken McPhail. Having started as a competitor with his club, Old Xaverians, in 1935, he served the APSOC as its first official Secretary from 1939-1949 and later as President from 1955-1957. However his most endearing and enduring contribution was as Handicapper, a duty which he performed with full relish and enthusiasm for an unbroken period of 25 years, until ill health forced, or rather his doctors ordered him, to start to shed some of his many activities. He was assisted over the latter years of that period by his great friend, Basil Thomson.
In modern times the handicaps for athletes are produced by computer. Many claim it is much easier to beat the system now than it was to get past the beady eyes and long term memory of Ken. Computers do not engage in after-race conversation in the pub and maybe that was the difference. Older athletes who have ever, or never, won a handicap event have K.W. McPhail to thank.
Honoured as a Life Member of this Association, Ken McPhail has left his mark, particularly by the strength of his personality and the management expertise he brought to race administration as Chief Official. Ken, in his dynamic way, saw that nothing got past him on race day, whether it be an ineligible competitor, a runner without a tag or a competitor in the wrong shorts.
His attendance was always advertised by his old Standard Vanguard, a Triumph TR2 or finally his Campervan. Race day, in the presence of Ken, had a personality all of its own. In later years his rather stout physique (in contrast to the more emancipated look of those around him) combined with his sheepskin coat, deer stalker hat and loud hailer in hand (prior to the battery PA system), with always his dear wife Shirley at his side, was a sight that offered security and comfort that all was in hand, combined with a certain warmth of atmosphere. To cross Ken on race day would merit a bark of rebuke, but always with a certain twinkle in the eye, and no recriminations felt over a beer at the Local after the event.
Although his prime years as a competitor were back in the 1950’s, Ken probably holds one record that will never be equalled. He started and finished approximately fifty Cooke McClelland races in succession, one of them only just off crutches. As the leader was heading for home with just one mile to run, he encountered Ken on his way out, making his way up the long hill. It was this strength of character and level of determination which endeared him to all who knew him.
Ken attended Xavier in 1933 -1934 on a scholarship, joined OXAAC in 1935 and quickly established himself as the club’s strongest distance competitor, particularly over cross country. He served Old Xaverians as Club Captain, was President from 1949-1951 and received life membership in 1957. For many years he was the club delegate to VAA Council meetings and gained a reputation for moving “suspension of standing orders”, as he proceeded to raise another point of controversy and concern to the club that he so passionately represented.
His greatest feats as a competing athlete were fastest time in the Dyson Relay on three occasions, and in the Jamieson and Orchard on one occasion each. He was placed third in the Cooke-McClelland on three occasions, but never managed to win it. During an era when marathon running was regarded as a bizarre pastime, engaged in only by eccentrics, Ken completed ten marathons, with a fastest time of 3:11.01 in 1953 which stood as a club record for Old Xaverians until 1964. He ran in the selection trial for the Melbourne Olympics in 1956, but did not make the team.
An eccentric he certainly was, and it was possibly this feature that endeared him to so many people. His interest in motor sports and particularly cars and car racing saw his name well known in those circles. As a race caller at Sandown and Calder Motor Circuits and also many country events through his regular radio programmes in the early days of 3XY, 3KZ and 3AW, and more lately on 3GL, saw Ken become a household name. He was equally at home calling speed boat and motor cycle racing.
His greatest interest was always in athletics and his proudest moments must surely include his being a participant in the Olympic Torch Relay and an announcer at the MCG for the athletics at the 1956 Olympic Games.
In between his busy schedule of sporting commitments, he also managed to work as a public servant through a variety of departments, starting with War Service Homes and finishing with Telecom. He saw war service with the RAAF 86 Squadron (Kitty Hawks), based in Dutch New Guinea, and he retained a strong social contact with his 86 Squadron fellows over the years.
An anecdote worth recording was Ken’s last track race, believe it or not, in A Grade in the late 1960’s (aged about 50). One Saturday at interclub competition, Old Xaverians required a high points score from the 440 yards, and noticing that the opposition had no starters, Ken stripped to fill the deficiency as third starter, being fully mindful that in those days there were no qualifying standards for the quarter, even in A Grade. The race was won by Tony McLeod-Nibbs, a sub 50 seconds man, Peter Bruce was second some 30 yards back and Ken was still coming with 150 yards to go. By next season they had introduced qualifying standards!
Paramount to Ken’s busy schedule of activities was his devotion to his loving family – Shirley, Leonie, Barry and Robert. His two sons both competed for the OXAAC, with Robert being the more active and continuing to represent the family at the race which now honours his father’s name.
The Ken McPhail 8km Handicap event is a “sealed handicap”, so that all runners start together without knowing their handicaps. At the conclusion of the race the handicaps are revealed and a winner announced. Originally staged at the Tan, this popular event has been held at Yarra Bend Park since 2006.
Ken spent part of the last 24 hours of his life, one cold Saturday in May 1984, the way he would have best liked, serving his club on the 17 km drink station at the Victorian 25km Road Championship. When he collapsed it was fitting that so many of his club mates could be at his side, so close to the end.