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Charles E. Lighter

Charles E. Lighter: Coe’s Greatest Hurdler

In the spring of 1913, just one year after the graduation of Clem Wilson, Coe’s greatest track star, Coach Bryant introduced a second sprinter who would dominate the competition for the next four years.  In a dual meet with Grinnell in May, Charles Eugene Lighter would have one of the greatest days in the history of Coe athletics. On the Grinnell track in a meet delayed by heavy rains, Lighter entered five events: the 100-yard dash, the 220, the 120-yard hurdles, the 220-yard hurdles, and the broad jump.  He won all five events, scoring 25 of the 78 points earned by the Coe team that day. Perhaps not surprisingly, as the Cosmos reported three years later, “we have not had a dual meet with Grinnell since.”

As was true for Clem Wilson, Eugene Lighter came from a small Iowa high school (Rolfe, Iowa) where he had been a star athlete in football, baseball, and track as a half-miler and broad jumper.  But, as the Cosmos reported in April of 1916, “ ‘Prof.’ Bryant saw greater possibilities in him than a mere half-miler and sprinter. ‘Prof.’ held that since he could both sprint and jump he could make a hurdler out of him.”  The wisdom of Prof Bryant’s decision was soon evident, and Lighter quickly emerged as the most eminent hurdler in the history of the college, successfully competing against the nation’s best low and high hurdlers.  He was named Coe's team captain both his junior and senior years, an honor that had only been given to Bryant and Wilson.

During the Wilson and Lighter years, the Coe track team was capable of totally dominating conference meets.  For example in the 1914 Iowa Conference Meet, Coe athletes (led by Lighter, Bailey, West, Verink, Knapp, and Carlstrom) won 12 of the 15 events.  Coe’s cumulative 64 points equaled the total points accumulated by the next five teams: Cornell, Grinnell, Morningside, Des Moines, and Simpson.  It was during the spring and summer of 1915 that Lighter enjoyed his greatest success, competing in the Drake Relays (where he set a record     ), the Penn Relays, and the Western Conference Championships at the University of Illinois.  In the summer he ran for the Illinois Athletic Club, enabling to compete in events that would make him eligible for the 1916 Olympics.  In July of 1915, at the Central AAU meet in Chicago, Lighter set a new American Record in the 440 hurdles.  His second place finish in the 440 hurdles at the Pan American Exposition in San Francisco assured him a place on the 1916 Olympic team.

While Lighter’s national fame rested on his stature as an athlete, his life at Coe was not just on the track.  In the middle of his first year at Coe, he found a job waiting tables in the nurse’s dining room at St. Luke’s Hospital, a job he held until graduation.  The job did not pay, but he did get plenty of good free food.  While earning excellent grades as a social science major, Lighter was also vice-president of the freshman class and elected president of the senior class.  He was secretary of the Alpha Nu literary society and athletics editor of the Acorn, served on the Pan-Hellenic council, and was a member of the YMCA’s five-man Gospel Team sent to Conrad, Iowa in 1914, recruiting converts to Christ.

Upon his graduation from Coe in 1916, Lighter held the school records for the 120 yard hurdles at 15 2/5 seconds, the 220 yard hurdles in 25 1/5 seconds, and the broad jump, with 21 feet and 9 3/4 inches; he had also been a member of the record-setting half-mile and mile relay teams. The 1918 Acorn praises him as “an athlete the like of whom is seldom seen on an Iowa college campus, he was democracy personified…besides being the highest individual point taker in most of the meets he entered, he was a hurdler of national reputation. Still holding many records in the state he reached the climax of his career last spring when he graduated in the blaze of glory which he so well deserved.”

Unfortunately, Lighter’s successes during his Coe years would be the climax of his track career. Although he was selected to be a member of the 1916 U.S. Olympic Team, the Games in Rome, Italy, were canceled because of World War I.  Lighter instead served his country by entering the U.S. Marine Corps and he eventually served in both World Wars, achieving the rank of major before his final retirement from the military in 1951.  After his tour of duty in the first World War, President Gage tried convincing Lighter to accept a Rhodes Scholarship for study at Oxford.  Lighter instead chose to settle in Cedar Rapids as a young married man and enter the construction field.  When he first returned to Cedar Rapids, he stayed for some weeks with Charles Hickok and his family.  Roby Hickok later served as a baby sitter for the Lighters’ daughter, Peggy. 

Lighter’s first job in Cedar Rapids was as a construction inspector involved in the rebuilding of the starch factory that had been the Douglas Starch Works before it was destroyed by a dust explosion in May of 1919.   In the early 1920s he also worked as an inspector for the School Board when McKinley and Roosevelt High Schools were being built.  In 1924 he went to work for George Keeler, doing fine wrought iron work.  Lighter eventually ended up living in Arizona, where he retired.  In 1973 Lighter donated to the college the title for five acres of desert northeast of Sun City, land that he had purchased in 1947 for less than $100.   Lighter advised the college to hold on to the land, expecting the value to rise due to the inevitable urban development around Phoenix.  Forty years after he purchased the property, Lighter’s little “farm” was valued at over $100,000.

Although in poor health the last twenty years of his life (he died in February of 1986), Lighter always retained a strong interest in Coe athletics.  In his frequent letters to people at Coe, he lamented the dearth of information on Coe events in the Arizona media.  It is fitting that Lighter, who maintained a life-long love of the college, was in 1973 inducted  into Coe's Athletic Hall of Fame.  His induction citation may still be found, surrounded by over 70 of his athletic medals that he donated to the college, in a display case in Eby Fieldhouse.

[1]Perhaps the single greatest day for a track star at Coe came in 1974 when Kip Korir, in his senior year at Coe, entered the Midwest Conference Meet and won the long jump, triple jump, 440, 880, and ran on two winning relay teams.  Korir returned to western Kenya, where he manages a tea plantation, but 25 years later three of his children were on campus as Coe Chips.

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