By Tony Blasi, Sports Editor
The last time I saw Thomas Eastler he was helping out at a track meet in Lisbon several years ago.
Eastler just couldn’t stay away from an event he participated in and coached during his fruitful life as an educator and a retired United States Air Force colonel.
He was a dedicated dad, role model — and above all else — a true gentlemen. The young athletes who came his way knew it was a privilege to be coached by man with endless zeal for racewalking — and life.
Eastler, a racewalker himself in college, was the most vocal advocate of the sport and was the force behind the adoption of the event at Maine track meets.
When it came to racewalking, the former University of Maine at Farmington professor of natural sciences was like a politician running for office. His unrelenting efforts to persuade Maine high schools to carry the sport never ceased.
Mr. Eastler passed away Friday at 73, but his legacy as a coach, husband and father will live on for generations.
I met Eastler in 2004 on a long. winding road north of Lewiston-Auburn. He was training his son, Kevin, a U.S. Air Force graduate and two-time Olympian. We conducted our long interview as Kevin went through his workout routine on that lonely stretch of road.
Thomas Eastler was an outspoken and boisterous man who greeted me with a big smile and a powerful handshake.
Just before he and his son headed off for the 2004 summer Olympics in Athens, Mr. Eastler told me a story about an acquaintance connected to the Munich Massacre at the 1972 Olympics.
Who could forget the images of masked-and-armed terrorists peeking from the balcony as sports broadcaster Jim McKay reported on the terrorist attack that eventually led to the deaths of 16 people?
Shaul Ladany — an Israeli Olympian who eluded the attackers at Munich and survived the Nazi death camps as a child — would become Eastler’s inspiration to become a racewalker and eventually a coach.
Mr. Eastler met Ladany in 1966 when they were graduate students in New York.
Eastler, a long-distance runner from Farmington, never heard of racewalking until he saw Ladany racing around the track at a blistering pace. For a week, Eastler observed Ladany go through his routine before he had the nerve to introduce himself.
“Finally, my curiosity got the best of me, and I said, ‘I’ll walk right next to him and ask him what was going on,” Mr. Easter said during our 2004 interview. “So I jogged beside him, introduced myself and asked him who he was. ‘Shaul Ladany,’ he told me.
“I asked: ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I am racewalking. ‘Gee, this is kind of interesting. Can I try?,’ I asked.
“’Sure! Wait till I finish my workout and I will show you how to do it.’”
For the next year, Ladany and Eastler worked in tandem as Eastler learned from his mentor.
“And then the first of two rapid-in-succession wars broke out (in the Middle East) and he disappeared one day,” Thomas Eastler said. “He was gone. He hopped in a plane and was flown back to the Six-Day War. He came back and then went to another one.”
In 2004, Thomas Eastler had not spoken with Ladany in nearly 37 years, but the UMF professor kept dibs on the Israeli racewalker’s career and tried to contact him during Eastler’s visits to the country. Ladany was usually teaching abroad and the two failed to connect.
Eastler eventually discovered that, Ladany, a native of Yugoslavia, was 8 years old when he was sent to the Bergen-Belson concentration camp to die.
So I dug up this morsel from Ladany’s past in 2004: According to the website “Jews in Sports,” Ladany told the Jerusalem Post in 1972: “I saw my father beaten by the SS and lost most of my family there. A ransom deal that Americans attempted saved 2,000 Jews and I was one. I actually went to the gas chamber but reprieved. God knows why.”
Ladany, who was teaching at Ben Gurion University at the time in 2004, went on to compete in two Olympics.
In the Munich Games in 1972, Ladany was Israel’s sole representative in track and field on the country’s 28-member team. He finished 19th in the racewalk and the next day Palestinian terrorists invaded the Olympic Village.
According to a Los Angeles Times account of the attack, Ladany and four Israeli athletes had been in a nearby apartment, which the terrorists ignored. They escaped through a window and sought refuge with the American Track and Field Team.
“I knew he was there,” Thomas Eastler said. “but I was so wrapped up in whatever I was doing that it didn’t register that he was the one being attacked.”
My column was published before I could reach Ladany for comment for the story in 2004. Just after the story ran, however, I contacted Ben Gurion University and eventually spoke with Ladany by email. Speaking with him was like listening to a history lecture. I reminded myself that I was talking to a concentration camp survivor, an Olympian, a friend of Dr. Thomas Eastler and a man who eluded the Palestinian attackers.
Looking back, I can’t remember if I gave Ladany’s contact information to Thomas Eastler. I think I did, but it has been 14 years since I wrote that story and there is only so much storage space left in my noggin.
But I thought about Eastler’s poignant remarks about Ladany, who sparked Eastler’s interest in racewalking.
“I’d like Kevin to meet Shaul because Shaul, if I take it back, started this whole thing,” Thomas Eastler said at the end of our interview. “He has a Maine connection that he doesn’t know about and I didn’t know it until I thought about it yesterday.
“In reality, if I didn’t see Shaul, I wouldn’t be racewalking. He was the seed, the racewalking seed, that started it all, which is kind of neat.
“I am going out to actively seek people and encourage them to become racewalkers because of the education Shaul gave me.”
Being a man of his word, Thomas Eastler kept on teaching racewalking to high school athletes around the Pine Tree State.
Shaul Ladany is now 82-years old and Thomas Eastler has passed away, but I will never forget the story about two good men and educators who went out for a walk together, became good friends along the way and established a legacy in Maine.