SI Vault
Dan Levin
December 15, 1975
Walter Stack swims San Francisco's waters, runs its roads and climbs its heights as does no other man of 67. That's for fun. For pay he carries 100-pound loads of cement up the sides of tall buildings
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
December 15, 1975

The Old Man And The Bay

Walter Stack swims San Francisco's waters, runs its roads and climbs its heights as does no other man of 67. That's for fun. For pay he carries 100-pound loads of cement up the sides of tall buildings

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3

All of his troubles having been on land, he decided to go to sea. But ashore in Louisiana, he had an argument with a sheriff in a roadhouse. "I had him around the neck," Stack says, "and I was kicking the hell out of him, and his deputy came along and hit me in the mouth with a brick." Stack got 90 days for that incident, and lost all his upper front teeth. " 'My God,' people say now, 'didn't they at least give you medical attention?' For what? I didn't even think about it."

He started shipping out on coal-burning ships, though it was much harder work than the oil-burners and the pay was only $2.50 more per month, $67.50. "But it was more macho," he says. And between jobs he read as many as nine newspapers every day. Since the Russian Revolution he had been interested in politics, and the Sacco-Vanzetti case changed his life. "I was from a broken family," he says. "My dad was a worker, and I was influenced by the agitation of the left." He wanted to do something, but a 19-year-old who at the age of 67 would be rising at 2:30 a.m. to run 17 miles does not do things halfway. He does not become a socialist. He becomes a Communist. Stack did, and to this day pays his monthly dues to the party. He has never regretted it, despite the fact that in 1951, deemed a security risk, he was screened out of the shipping industry forever.

For four years after that he worked on the kill floor of San Francisco slaughterhouses, beating cattle to death with a sledgehammer, until one day his back went out. A friend, a business agent for the hod carriers' union, got him a job and he settled down to stay in San Francisco. Once, when he was in Beirut, Stack had leaped from his ship and swum half a mile to shore just to see if he could do it. From then on swimming had been his sport. He could swim all day, it seemed, though his form was so bad that he always looked as if he were drowning. In San Francisco he joined the Dolphin Swimming and Boating Club. Sometimes he would get up at 4 a.m. and ride his bike 120 miles to a place called Ukiah. The state police kept kicking Stack and his three-speeder off the highway, but he persisted; he wanted more endurance for swimming. Once he entered a real bike race, against the finest 10-speed racers, ignoring comments about his fenders and his basket. "I just wanted to try it," he said. He began taking part in Dolphin Club swims across the Golden Gate and from Alcatraz to the club beach. He had a home now, his own beach, his own bay, month after month, year after year.

Someone told him that running would help his swimming even more than cycling, so he entered one of the toughest short races on the face of the earth, Marin County's Dipsea Race—up one side of 2,600-foot-high Mount Tamalpais and down the other. It begins with a flight of 675 stairs. Stack ran the course in Army boots. In 1966 he started running a mile and a half every day. A year later he was up to six, and he founded the Dolphin South End Runners' Club, a fun running club, one of the largest in the Bay Area. Its symbol is a turtle, its motto, "Start Off Slow and Taper Off." As Paxton Beale says, "There are people in this club, in good shape, who can't run five miles in 40 minutes. Elsewhere they'd be laughed off the course, but here they don't even finish last."

Sometimes they even win the big annual trophies, the Walter Stack Trophy for women and the Bill Emmerton Trophy, named for the professional distance runner, for men. Mileage counts, not speed. Stack won the men's trophy twice and then, to give others a chance, he began cutting down on his mileage toward the end of each year. This year the club has run 35 races, from 1.5 to 13.6 miles, usually on Sundays in Golden Gate Park. The turnouts average 300 of the 1,000 DSE members, with more women each year, and everyone who finishes gets a ribbon and a tongue depressor marked with the position of his finish.

The soul and inspiration of DSERC, and its permanent president, is Walter Stack. All of it was his idea: the scoring for the trophies, the ribbons and the tongue depressors, and especially the encouraging of women. They comprise only 20% of the membership, but Stack insists they be given an equal number of awards. He says, "Just getting into a pair of running shorts is a shock to most women. They've been discriminated against for so many years, and now we have to favor them to make up for it. It's important to develop their self-esteem." Last August he persuaded 25 DSE women to enter the annual Pikes Peak Marathon, more women than had entered that race in all the previous 20 years of its history put together. He even had special T shirts made for them. DSE member Marge St. James says, "Women meeting Walt think he's loud and crude, but after awhile they love him. He's like a puppy dog. He might tear your dress, jumping up on you, but he's not mean about it. And he is a feminist."

St. James calls the DSERC her "entry into the straight world." She is the chairmadam of COYOTE, an acronym for Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics, "a loose women's organization," as its members call it. Their concern is the decriminalization of victimless crimes, and the prevention of harassment of prostitutes by the police. Stack attends some of their meetings, and is an honorary member.

"Walt is the oldest living teen-ager," says Dr. Joan Ullyot, a pathologist, marathon runner and DSERC member. And so he is, in good ways and bad. His energy would do credit to any 15-year-old, but there is also his sense of humor, often repetitive, impossibly corny and totally lacking in restraint. He has willed his body to the University of California Medical School, and three or four times each day, while running or cycling, he will say, "Not bad for a guy with one foot in the UC pickling vat, and the other one on a banana peel."

No day passes when he does not observe, "People in this country die in alphabetical order. I see them that way in the paper."

In crowded restaurants, especially, he comes into his own. He never modifies his language, and a slight deafness in one ear causes him to speak loudly. All about him ears turn purple. He is compulsively gregarious. "Short stack," a waitress yelled at breakfast recently, and he grabbed her by the arm. "You know," he said loudly, "my name is Stack, and when I was a kid I'd hear people in restaurants yelling 'stack!' and I'd get angry. But now I don't care." By this time the waitress was edging nervously away.

Continue Story
1 2 3