By Jim Moyes
It will soon be time for our local track athletes to set their sights on the upcoming Greater Muskegon Athletic Association’s Track & Field Championships, an event that has been one of the highlights for our area Track & Field performers since 1955.
Sixty-Seven years have passed since the first Greater Muskegon Track Championships were contested at two track facilities, neither of which are in existence today. In 1955, and repeated again in 1956, the field events were contested at Hackley Stadium while the evening’s running events took place at Muskegon Catholic’s Kehren Stadium.
All records set back in the days when our local track stars competed on those antiquated cinder tracks have long fallen by the wayside — with one notable exception — the mile run, or 1600 meter, as today’s races are contested over the metric distance.
The record for the boys 1600 run is listed at 4:18.6, established by North Muskegon’s Dean Rosenberg on Reeths-Puffer’s cinder track way back in 1965. Rosenberg was a state champion miler for the Norse and later a highly successful cross-country and track star at Michigan State University.
However, all stories do not necessarily have a happy ending and a happy ending was certainly not the case with Rosenberg.
It was apparent when Rosenberg first appeared in a NM track uniform in his freshman year in 1962, that he had a promising track future as a Norsemen. As a young student at NM, I well remember Don Berry as a very good miler at NMHS in 1956-1957. Berry, a former mile winner at the GMAC championships, always had his goal to set a NM track record that dated back to the 1947 school. Berry often came agonizingly close to Bob Nelson’s record time of 4:47.0, but fell short of besting Nelson’s record.
Rosenberg made short work of topping the mile mark as he easily bested Nelson’s record early into his freshman year for the Norse. He would quickly run much faster in the ensuing years.
By the time Rosenberg was a junior, he was a state champion in the mile run. The rules for participation in track and field were far different than today’s more liberal options. In Rosenberg’s era, if one was to participate in the mile run, they were only eligible to partake in one other race, none longer than 440 yards.
For much of his career, Dean participated in the mile run and then would run anchor in the meet’s final race, the 4×440 relay. There was one time where Rosenberg made an exception, a dual meet in Whitehall when he skipped the mile for a one-time only race in the 880. Rosenberg easily won the event in 1:58.1, a time that would stand as a NM school record for 42 years!
From recent conversations I had with a handful of Dean’s former teammates and classmates in high school and college, it was clear that Rosenberg was a very popular, well-liked, and top-notch athlete.
High school classmate Tom Austin well remembered Dean’s track exploits.
“Dean and I were very close friends from elementary school on and were even roommates briefly at Michigan State,” Austin said. “We were on the mile relay team at NM that I would describe as three guys with decent speed and didn’t drop the baton much – and Dean Rosenberg. We didn’t lose much. I recall one race where we presented Dean with a deficit of a hundred yards for his anchor leg and watched him nudge his startled competitor at the finish line – he just hated to lose, and almost never did.”
Dean began his senior year in early April by setting a new Class B Spartan Relays record for the mile by racing eight laps over the dusty indoor track at Jenison Fieldhouse in 4:29.4. A month later, Dean drew gasps from the large crowd at Reeths-Puffer with his still-standing record-setting Greater Muskegon win in the mile. In the many years to follow, Dean would always mention to me how proud he was of his record and often expressed how surprised he was that it had yet to be broken.
Yet another of his childhood chums and teammate on the Northside was John Hutson, a retired Rear Admiral from the US Navy and former Judge Advocate of the Navy, who twice spoke at recent Democratic National Conventions.
“He was one of my very best friends all through high school and college at MSU,” said Hutson. “I have a lot of memories. One of the most vivid was at a spring track practice. As seniors, Dean was, of course, our very best distance runner by … well, a mile. He smoked everybody in the 440, 880, and mile. But Dennis Wilder (long-time school record holder in the pole vault) and I thought we were our best 100 and 220 guys. One day, for no apparent reason, Coach (Wes) Bunks put Dean in a 220-time trial. He beat both me and Dennis by … well, a mile. I was both humiliated and amazed. The guy was an awesome runner. “
Rosenberg took his talents to MSU and was a star runner for both the Michigan State cross country and track teams. In his junior season of 1968, Rosenberg lowered his best time in the mile down to 4:10 and placed a very respectable fourth at the Big Ten Championships.
I had a chance to talk to one of his Spartan teammates recently. Bill Wehrwein was a world class runner for the Spartans and a former American record holder in the indoor 600-yard dash who, coincidentally, married a North Muskegon graduate, Gigi Bradbury.
“The three years I knew Dean at MSU, I found him to be happy go lucky and a great teammate,” Wehrwein said. “I last saw him in 1969 after he graduated and was about the leave to attend a Merrill Lynch school to become a stockbroker.”
Over the years to follow, things would begin to turn downhill for Rosenberg. Initially, he became a very successful broker in Chicago, but that wasn’t good enough for the former track star.
“He became obsessed with becoming a film producer and that seems to be when things started to unravel,” said his longtime childhood friend Tom Austin. “I once visited Dean in Chicago and it appeared to me that he was very successful. He was living a lavish lifestyle and lived in a luxurious high-rise condo that had a marvelous view of both the Chicago sky-line as well as Lake Michigan.”
Rosenberg later began to display eccentric behavior on his return trips back to the Port City. However, it’s probably better that we leave most of his unusual oddities left unsaid. We can only speculate what contributed to his bizarre personality and mental decline in his later years.
However, it had become clear to many of his former classmates that his penchant to become a movie producer and a politician were stepping-stones towards his peculiar behavior.
There was one instance that stood out to John Hutson.
“I eventually lost contact with him, but I remember my parents telling me about a bizarre encounter when he ‘dropped in’ unannounced to ask them for a donation for some really high-level political position he was running for” Hutson said. “I don’t remember what it was, but it was way out of his league. He was driven to their house in a chauffeur driven limo, which we later learned was rented and driven by a friend of his. In my mind, his picture had fallen off the back of the piano.”
Bill Wehrwein recalled a similar story to Rosenberg knocking on the door of his wife’s parents seeking money for the production of a movie. Rosenberg once contacted me asking if I would contribute a forward for a book that he was writing on his life’s story. I fully acquiesced, knowing fully well that it probably was just a pipe dream and the book would never become a reality.
When it had become clear that Dean was having mental issues, he unfortunately, began losing contacts with his close friends from years past.
In perhaps his last appearance in North Muskegon, Rosenberg offered his volunteer services to veteran North Muskegon football coach Dave Cooke.
“Dean showed up for practice one day (around 2000) and said he would like to help,” Cooke said. “I well-remembered Dean from his high school days and how hard he worked, and I just couldn’t say no. However, I eventually had to ask him to leave as he was clearly having some mental issues. He seemed a little destitute at the time and I don’t believe he even owned a car. The only time I saw him around town he was either riding a bike or just running.”
Shortly thereafter, Dean left North Muskegon and apparently never returned.
I only personally witnessed Dean run once during his high school career, as I was serving in the Army during his junior and senior years at NMHS. While on leave from the Army, in a dual meet at Reeths-Puffer, I couldn’t get over how smoothly he ran as it almost appeared that his feet barely grazed the ground on the cinder surface at RP. Shortly after I returned to my base in Fort Benning, Georgia, I wrote Dean a congratulatory letter on his extraordinary exploits for my alma mater. In later years, Dean always thanked me for that letter.
I was saddened to learn that Rosenberg had passed away around 2005 in Las Vegas. Dean’s passing was left with little fanfare and an obituary has never been found of his passing. All his friends were clueless as to the details of his death and the cause of his mental condition that led up to his passing.
Personally, I just want to remember Dean, not for his mental decline, but for his bubbly personality and his incredible talents on the cinders. Maybe these remembrances of Dean Rosenberg can serve as the obituary that he deservedly earned. May Greater Muskegon’s longest record-holder Rest in Peace.