Not everyone has met someone like Curtis Elder.
He did not merely wish for fortune to come his way, but made it happen. He was a man who was completely selfless and whose fortune came from helping others reach their potential. The long-time Charlottesville High School coach and teacher put his community, his athletes, his students and his family all before himself. He was a man whose biggest pet peeve was selfishness and lived by the motto, “it’s a team thing.”
On Feb, 13, Elder lost a long fight to scleroderma, but the decorated Charlottesville Track and Field coach will leave behind a legacy to be forever cherished by members of the Central Virginia community.
“In his 44 years of coaching, I know not all 44 years are here at Charlottesville High School, but Charlottesville High School Track and Field is Curtis Elder,” said Timmy Johnson, a longtime friend and former runner and assistant coach to Elder, who will take over as the head outdoor coach at CHS this year. “That’s how I look at his legacy. That’s what it is.”
After taking over the CHS track and field program in 1978, Elder tallied over 250 career wins, won seven state titles and had more than 20 district and regional championships. He was also nominated for the 2005 National Coach of the Year Award and won the Wilt Walt Cormack Award, which is a statewide acknowledgement by fellow coaches for contributions in the sport of track and field, in 1999.
But what’s more impressive than any achievement or award that Elder ever received was how much he cared for his student-athletes and the leadership role he played.
“It wasn’t that he wanted to make his kids great athletes. It wasn’t that he wanted them to help his team win. It wasn’t that he was trying to help them get to college or maybe a scholarship to college. He wanted to make sure that they were on the right path and make sure they were doing the right things. That was most important," said Mark Lorenzoni, Elder's friend of three decades and a local running enthusiast. “He saved a lot of kids. He got them on really good paths and got them to appreciate their own inner abilities and physical abilities, and also how to respect their teammates and respect their bodies. Ultimately they made really good decisions throughout high school and got into good colleges…He was a great mentor.”
Throughout the years, Elder not only earned respect through winning, but also through setting an example. A father of five, a grandfather of seven and a father figure to hundreds, Elder himself even recognized this trait when speaking last November after having the track at CHS named after him.
"I have a lot of great memories," said Elder. “Mainly I remember the kids and what they did and how much fun I had. Those kids, I was their dad in a way. I loved them all. They were my kids and I enjoyed everything they did."
At the ceremony honoring Elder, and renaming the track Curtis Elder Track and Field, some of his former athletes in their 20’s and 30’s cried at the event when Elder spoke about how committed he was to making them better people.
“He was just there so much for the kids,” said Ronald Green, a colleague of Elder since the 1980’s. “He really enjoyed seeing them succeed. Anything he could do, he would do it. He would really go out of his way. But he would never let them know that he was going out of his way for them.”
Elder was not the kind of guy who lived for recognition. He stayed focused on helping kids reach their potential, which may be one of the reasons that when Elder’s girls team won the 2006-2007 Indoor State Championship, he kept his recently discovered illness to himself.
“He didn’t let anybody know,” said Green. “But that’s the kind of person he was. He was always there for the kids regardless of his physical condition or how bad he felt.”
Scleroderma is a chronic connective tissue disease. Hardening of the skin is one of the most visible signs of the disease. After the meet, Elder got sicker. He began to drop weight and strength at noticeable rates.
“I kept thinking he’s going to quit. He’s going to retire. He’s going to give in,” said Lorenzoni.
Since the 1970’s, Elder was loaded with energy, jumping around, giving advice, and yelling at folks, but after the illness sunk in. he could no longer stand.
Being the fighter he was, Elder overcame this obstacle by bringing a fold-out chair to the events that he would set up it in a strategic spot. There he would sit and cheer the athletes on the best he could.
“You would see the athletes go over there and consult with him all the time,” said Lorenzoni. “It was so cute! He would move the chair around to all sorts of different places depending on where the actions was.”
All the way up until last year, Elder continued to coach. And although he was laid to rest on Wednesday morning, his impact will continue to live on through the people he coached and taught.