CUMBERLAND – You knew long before the question was posed how uncomfortable Tom Kenwood was.
Now in his 40th year as the Cumberland High boys’ indoor and outdoor track & field mentor, the soft-spoken Kenwood always has dodged – still does – any queries about his impact on the consistent successes of his teams; he’ll talk about his athletes’ intense work ethic and drive, competitive nature, etc., as the reason.
In fact, during this particular “sit down” with Kenwood in the Wellness Center’s Room 103, surrounded by free weights, Kenwood seemed a bit fidgety.
“I do feel uncomfortable; I’d rather give the credit to all the great kids who’ve made me look good over the years,” he explained shyly. “You can help them get there, but they’re the ones who have the internal drive to push themselves. I’ve also been blessed with some phenomenal assistants and other coaches.
“I had Varnum Elliott for about 25 years, and he’s always been terrific; he’s now a starter and an official,” he added. “Chris Skurka has done a great job over the past few years as the weight coach, and I’m looking forward to working with Matt Campanelli; he’s going to take Chris’ place as indoor weight coach (this winter); he threw for me years ago.
“Matt later coached at Williams College, where he was an All-American hammer thrower in Division III. Actually, Chris was an All-American in the hammer at Rhode Island College. Other great assistants I’ve had were Tim Coen, Bob Humphrey and John McLaughlin, but I received a lot of help from the girls’ coaches – Jane Headley, Bob Bayha, Harry Gederman and – of course – (current mentor) Joyce Bonner. They’ve been so important to our doing well.
“In the end, though, it’s been the kids themselves.”
During his long, distinguished tenure – one that includes a near 20-year stint as the boys’ cross-country chief – Kenwood has developed at least nine high school All-Americans – including Bob Allen, the brother tandems of Al and Mike Lareau as well as Alan and Steve Susi, Mark Smith, Jeremy Duffy, Jerry Bonner and Jay Champi.
Among those garnering collegiate All-American laurels: Skurka, Allen, Daryl Simoneau, brothers Pat and Ron Gillooly, Campanelli, Craig Schule and Tom Ratcliffe.
And, because of Kenwood’s influence, over 25 have gone on to coach at either the high school or college levels.
In those four decades, Kenwood’s squads have collected one state title each in cross-country (2004) and indoor (1977-78) track, not to mention one in girls’ gymnastics in 1984.
“When I first took the job, I never dreamed I’d spend the rest of my life here,” Kenwood grinned. “It’s been a great 40 years. I can honestly say teaching and coaching has been my hobby, a fantastic hobby; it never was a job to me.”
Kenwood, now 63, grew up in Pawtucket, and later attended Tolman High, where he took part in varsity cross-country, swimming and outdoor track.
He admitted he never truly blossomed as an athlete with the Tigers, but that changed after he graduated in 1969 and enrolled at RIC.
“I knew in high school I wanted to be a teacher and a coach,” he noted. “I just enjoyed athletics, and I was pretty good in math. I just really liked school and the atmosphere around it.”
As an Anchorman, while chasing a degree in his physical education major, he played a key role as a frosh in RIC’s capture of the No. 2 spot in the 1969 New England State College Athletic Conference Cross-Country Championship; and also helped the Anchormen to the 1970 NESCAC outdoor title.
In that latter meet, he manufactured five top-six finishes in his events, including the javelin, 400 intermediate hurdles, the 880-yard and mile runs and a relay. In 1972, he finished 10th individually at the NESCAC
Cross-Country Championships, and later qualified for the NAIA National Outdoor meet in the javelin.
Even before he matriculated with a Bachelor’s in Physical Education in 1974 (he had used up his four years of eligibility the previous spring), he already had begun mentoring his former RIC teammates.
“I wasn’t competing, but (long-time Hall of Fame mentor) Ray Dwyer came in to coach us in 1973-74, and he tapped me on the shoulder one day,” Kenwood recalled. “He said, ‘Will you help me?’ I knew of his reputation as a premier coach, and I just told him, ‘Of course I will!’
“I’ve had a lot of great people I’ve learned from, but Ray’s at the top of the list,” he offered. “He’s the one who got me started in coaching, and – when it came time to move on and become a teacher and coach – he’s the one who helped me land the job I have in Cumberland.”
That same year, 1974, he began teaching health and physical education at various Catholic elementary schools within the Diocese of Providence.
“I used to travel to four or five schools each week, and I did that for four or four-and-a-half years,” he acknowledged. “I also was teaching various sports at the Pawtucket YMCA and at the Gym & Trim Village, which was owned by Gail Southworth. That’s where I learned more about gymnastics. I hitched on with Gail when I was still in school.
“I became a full-time P.E. teacher at Cumberland High beginning the second semester of 1978; I was already married (to ‘super’ wife Kathy), and she’s the one who started the girls’ basketball program here (in 1973-74),” he continued, noting Kathy had spent decades teaching the same subject at Cumberland elementary schools before retiring in 2006.
“I was also working with the boys’ (gymnastics) club team here in 1974-75; I did that to supplement my income, as we were starting a family. I started coaching here first, and that led to my teaching in Cumberland; I started at the North Cumberland Middle School. I actually took Teddy North’s position after he retired.”
In 1981, he became the Community College of Rhode Island’s cross-country mentor, and started educating young gymnasts at CHS the same year. He paced the Clippers to three straight runner-up finishes before gleaning the state title in 1984.
Kenwood began coaching the Clippers’ male harriers in 1995, and took them to three R.I. Class A crowns before winning the state championship in 2004. Between cross-country, indoor and outdoor track and girls’ gymnastics, CHS has snagged over 600 victories and 40 divisional titles.
Incredibly, there’s more: He’s lent his hands to directing the Arnold Mills and Cumberlandfest Road Races for over 20 years, not to mention leading the Cumberland Parks & Recreation Department’s summer track program for 40.
Naturally, Kenwood has seen it all in his tenure at CHS, but he couldn’t help but laugh when asked to describe some of his more humorous moments with his athletes.
“I remember when Alan Susi, who later earned All-State (laurels), was a sophomore; he came out and said he wanted to learn how to throw the javelin,” Kenwood said. “This was back in ’96, I think. I told him to go to the shed and get one, and I’d teach him.
“He came back with a javelin, and I just looked at him, ‘You’re right-handed, aren’t you?’ He said, ‘Yes,’ and I told him, ‘But you’ve got a left-handed jav.’ He looked confused, so went back to the shed to look for one. He was in there about 10 or 15 minutes, and the upperclassmen who had heard the whole thing were laughing hysterically. He eventually came back saying, ‘But, Coach, I can’t find one!’ The kids were rolling on the field.
“Once he learned there was no such thing (as a ‘specialty’ javelin), he started laughing, but he was mad at the guys for busting him up … That’s actually been a tradition for us. When another kid came up wanting to learn the shot put, the kids would say, ‘Tell him he needs a lefty one!’ It’s been a running joke for years.”
Prior to the 2004 R.I. Interscholastic Cross-Country Championships at Bryant, Kenwood had an extremely-talented bunch, and he promised them if they won the title, he’d shave his head. The inspired Clippers – courtesy of standouts Bobby Hartnett, Devon Holgate, Derek Turcotte and Seth Ross – outhustled slightly-favored Hendricken by two points.
“I didn’t know we had won, but (Hawks’ legendary coach) Jimmy Doyle came up to me and said, ‘Tom, you got us,’” he noted. “That meet was up at Ponaganset. Once it was over, I told the kids how proud I was of them, and they were teasing me about my promise. I shaved my head Sunday night and went to school that Monday morning. The kids flipped; I just told them, ‘Hey, I’m a man of my word.’”
Kenwood flashed back to the Clippers’ 1978 indoor campaign, and explained how he would bus his boys to Franklin on Sunday nights to compete in “All Comers Meets,” those designed to keep athletes sharp for more important, upcoming class and state events.
“The Blizzard of ’78 struck, and the kids obviously couldn’t get on the streets to train, so going to Franklin became even more important,” he described. “It was really difficult, given the road conditions, but we got there. I think, ultimately, that helped us prepare for and win the state title.
“I remember Steve Mazzone, who was a junior, being right in character,” he chuckled. “I had brought him up to Franklin to be serious, but I turned around one minute and saw him balancing a high jump bar on his chin, entertaining the crowd. Everyone was roaring; that was typical Steve, but I had a lot of guys who were crazy.”
He then brought up a 600-yard state champion named Ron Benoit, who also had a wild side.
“I walked into the gym after a meet that season (in ‘78), and I saw Ron standing on a basketball rim. I just shook my head and said, ‘What the heck are you doing? Get down from there!’ He looked at me, smiled and dropped straight through the net and to the floor. I don’t know how he didn’t break an ankle.
“Then there was Walter Grant, who was a phenomenal talent in the mile and two mile; in fact, he won two straight indoor state titles in both, with one outdoor (crown) in the two mile, but he was crazy,” he continued. “I remember one day he had taken a kid’s mitten and thrown it on top of the heating ducts (near the gymnasium’s ceiling), so I yelled at him, ‘Are you nuts? Quit it!’
“I went to the boys’ locker room for something, and when I came back, Walter was on top of the duct trying to get the mitten. He had shimmied up the steal beam and swung his way over to it. Honestly, I just shook my head. That’s a mild story about Walter. Those who went to school with him could tell you some crazier stunts.”
If there’s one tale that still tugs at his heart strings, it’s that of Jerry Bonner, a 2001 graduate.
The year before, as a junior, Bonner had snatched the state cross-country title at Bryant, and both he and Kenwood set their sights on him claiming the individual mile and two mile indoor and outdoor state championships.
“That indoor season, he had been ranked second nationally in the 1,500 meters and third in the 3,000, and those were from times he ran at CCRI (in Lincoln), which isn’t the fastest track around; that’s how good he was,” Kenwood remembered. “That winter, we were at the Class A Championships, and he ran the best race I’ve ever seen by a high school kid. He edged John Kielczyk from Hendricken by a tenth of a second (with a still-standing school record of 4:01.3) to win the title.
“After that race, he approached me and said he wasn’t feeling well, so I told him, ‘Don’t worry. Go rest,’” he added. “That Monday, he went to his doctor because of some stomach issues, and the doctor noticed he had a very rapid heartbeat. He told him he was going to school, then do a workout afterward, but he called the school and said that under no circumstance should Jerry be allowed to do any workout.
“The doctor put him on a halter monitor, which he wore for two days,” he continued. “The results came in, and it was recommended he go see a specialist. That’s when he was diagnosed with right ventricular dysplasia; that’s what was causing the extremely rapid heartbeat.
“It turned out he could’ve died at any time. The heart gets to pumping so fast that no blood can be pumped, and the heart an virtually stop.”
He later had surgery for a pacemaker, but never competed or ran again. The good news: He’s now married and a father of two youngsters; he also has helped his mom coach the Cumberland girls’ programs.
“That still causes me nightmares,” Kenwood said grimly. “I think about what could have happened to him. Still, an interesting highlight: At the state indoor meet, (former Hawks’ baseball and indoor standout) Rocco Baldelli won the 55-meter dash, and he sent his medal to Jerry because he couldn’t compete. That brings tears to my eyes.”
It’s been an immensely satisfying 40 years for Kenwood, who says he has no plans on retiring.
“It keeps me busy, and young,” he smiled. “Like I said, my job is my hobby. There’s always that certain freshman who comes in and you see he’s loaded with talent and fire. That’s when I say to myself, ‘OK, another four years.’ Last year, that freshman was Sean Laverty (an All-State cross-country selection as a sophomore).
“I love it because I see the kids playing and grasping what you tell them; you know if they keep with this regimen, they’ll be healthy for life,” he added. “You see a kid who can’t get over two consecutive hurdles train and finish a race for the first time, clearing them all. You see a freshman who can’t lift the 25-pound weight who works hard and ends up placing top six three years later at a class meet.
“That’s why I coach. I exist for this.”