From Dream to Legacy: A Personal History in the Pole Vault (or Fiberglass Vaulting Poles 101 – now the unabridged version)
by Debra Chappell
View From the Bleachers:
Mood Reading: zzz’s (catching up on the ones I lost during the holidays)
AUTHOR’S NOTE: The interview contained herein was posted last night – and appeared as it does in Vaulter magazine. Due to space and length constraints of the magazine, some of the more anecdotal portions understandably were edited out. This morning however, after a few cups of coffee I realized the only constraints of my blog are my readers attention spans and refills of the respective beverages they may be consuming while reading it. So grab yourself a refill and get comfy — I have included those portions back in. (and thank Vaulter Magazine for posting a link to the unedited version as well)
It’s that time of year. With the National Pole Vault Summit quickly approaching on Jan. 17th, (that 3-day epic sporting event celebrating the lifeblood of my immediate family) this space will once again be temporarily diverted from the intermittent ramblings of a rural blonde writer to the musings of a well-seasoned (read that: aging) pit-lizard.
As such, I was recently asked by Vaulter Magazine and friend Bubba Sparks for an interview about my father, his life, and personal observations around the pole vault pit for this month’s issue. (There is an upside to sheer longevity after all.) I was not only touched to be asked but enjoyed revisiting happy memories of my father, family, and extended family in the pole vault community. What struck me most was that Bubba’s questions were mostly centered around the people and relationships in the event which is what I’ve always enjoyed most, rather than an exhaustive expose on technique and pole selection, my knowledge of which combined you could cram into a pole tip!
I am sharing the interview here in the lead up to the National Pole Vault Summit and will probably break it into a few installments. There is a portion dedicated to the evolution of the fiberglass vaulting pole – which will only be of interest to the die-hard PV disciples. So to the casual reader or my ‘civilian’ followers – feel free to use that time instead to redeem your Xmas gift cards to Starbucks. I will in no way be offended. : )
So, without further adieu, here is Bubba’s introduction as it appears in Vaulter Magazine:
“It occurred to me during a Facebook exchange with Debbie Chappell that no single living person has seen more fiberglass pole vault history than Debbie. Her father was George Moore, who partnered with engineer Herb Jenks to create the modern day pole as we know it. For 39 years she has been married to Steve Chappell of UCS Spirit Vaulting Poles, the unquestionable leader in total records for the pole vault, and a major force behind the National Pole Vault Summit in Reno each year. From childhood to adult she has witnessed the evolution of the very equipment we hold most dear, the pole vault pole itself. As a lifelong vaulter and fan I asked Debbie if she would be kind enough to let me interview her and I’m grateful she consented. Not only did she consent but she sent me 14 PAGES of answers to my questions and many photos. This article is a series of excerpts from that “interview”. Vaulter Magazine owner, Doug Bouma will provide a link so you can read the entire interview. She also submitted several historical photos. Thank you Debbie!! I’m honored to know you and I thank you so much for sharing your insights. Bubba”
1. What are your first memories of your exposure to pole vaulting? What were your thoughts and impressions?
I honestly can’t ever remember a time not being around the pole vault. Even before my father started his business in the early 60’s, he was a huge fan (an old vaulter himself) and would take my sister and me to meets with him. I do remember being quite surprised to learn that some of the kids that lived on our cul de sac in Southern Calif. went to Dodgers games instead of the Mt. Sac Relays, like boy, how weird is that?
It was just what we did. My sister (who is 4 years older) remembers seeing Dave Tork break the world record at Mt. Sac in 1962 – honestly, I was too young. I was probably off sucking Pixie Stix under the bleachers – those were my earliest memories of track meets.
The first vaulter that made an impact on me was Paul Wilson (Bubba-1st high school vaulter to clear 16’/4.88m). He was in high school and I was in grade school. He didn’t know I existed but I remember him being very polite to me. My father was close to his family. They lived in Downey, not far from us, and I remember being at their home on several occasions and at his practices on a few. I remember him being talked of as “the high school phenom”, but really wasn’t at an age to appreciate what that meant – I just thought he was cute.
To be honest, when I was very young and growing up around it, I never gave the event itself much thought. I didn’t know or care about the mechanics of it, I liked the competitions to watch, it looked like fun, and I always had a blast hootin’ and hollerin’ in the stands for my favorites (read that: the guys using ‘our’ poles!) A funny little aside here: When we were kids, my sister and I would sit in the stands and try to jinx the guys not using Dad’s poles (girls weren’t vaulting then). We’d pound our fists on our knees and mutter under our breath, “Miss! Miss! Miss…” over and over. One time my dad caught us and we got scolded. He told us in no uncertain terms that we were never to wish for somebody to miss, that we could only root for the people we liked to make it, or just keep quiet. A lesson I still heed today : )
But in those early years, it was the people who were around who were most interesting to me, the different personalities and their varied backgrounds. We always had coaches and athletes coming and going and it all seemed very exciting.
I think it wasn’t until the era of the Bob Seagren/John Pennel rivalry in the mid 60’s that I started paying attention to the event as something other than just what my father was involved in. I was just getting into middle school and started really enjoying the competition aspect. Bob was unique, an extraordinary competitor. Even as young as I was, I understood that. He and my dad had a special bond and he was very special to our family. Not only was he this handsome, fierce competitor and athlete, but really a true friend. He was always warm and gracious to my sister and me.
I remember on one occasion in high school I had just broken up with my boyfriend. I’d been mooning around the house the whole afternoon and my dad I think was fed up. He finally came to me and said “look, we’re meeting Bob and Kam (Bob’s wife to be) for dinner tonight, why don’t you come along, it will make you feel better.” I reluctantly tagged along. When Kam found out what had happened, she talked to me for a long time about “stupid boys” and gave me lots of advice, and Bob teased me all through dinner just to make me feel better. And oh yeah, I think there was some vault talk squeezed in there some where, but all I know is I felt like a million bucks leaving that dinner, and never forgot it — or Kam’s advice about those “stupid boys”.
And of course, then the Swedes came along, Kjell Isaksson (and Hans Lagerqvist) and that rivalry with Bob and the subsequent talk and exciting times around our house escalated mightily along with the falling records.
2) Tell us about your dad. He is universally recognized as the father of modern pole technology. What do you remember that indicated to you that what he did was special? What kind of personality type did he most resemble?
I just want to clear up one misconception about my father (a flattering one but a misconception all the same). He wasn’t a scientist or an engineer and didn’t ‘invent’ modern pole technology. That credit goes (and goes alone) to his business partner Herb Jenks. It was Herb who invented and developed the very first fiberglass vaulting pole.
Herb was brilliant. Every single brand of pole in use today owes at least some aspect of its technology to Herb Jenks. And though a genius by all accounts, Herb was a shy, retiring, and quiet man. He knew the science of the implement, but wasn’t a salesman by nature or avid student of vault technique. It was my father who understood the event, vault mechanics, and most of all, the psyche of the athletes using their poles. He would observe, listen, and identify the needs and preferences of athletes and take them to Herb. My dad would make suggestions, and it was Herb who turned those ideas into the final product.
As far as resembling a personality, I think Bill Cosby as Dr. Huxtable could have taken a few lessons from my Pop.
My father was a kind, warm, generous and outgoing man with a great sense of humor and an even greater sense personal responsibility and integrity. He loved the event and on the whole, liked and respected all it’s participants, even the ones who didn’t use his equipment. He was their advocate, greatest supporter, and in many instances, confidant. After a meet, he would gather up all the vaulters, (even those who didn’t use his pole,) and take the lot of them out to dinner. If they weren’t literally sitting around the dinner table after a meet, they were certainly a part of his daily life and our nightly dinner conversation. People like Bob Seagren of course, but also Dave Roberts, Jan Johnson, Dick Railsback, Terry Porter, Bob Pullard, Vic Diaz, Bob Slover, Larry Jesse, Earl Bell, Mike Tully, Dan Riply, Billy Olsen, Brad Pursley, Tim Bright, Dave Volz, Joe Dial, Scott Huffman, Kory Tarpening and a host of others, ended up either at one of my “dad’s dinners” or shooting the breeze with him after or before a meet, and on the phone in between. The dinners were always fun, boisterous and sometimes cathartic occasions, especially for anyone who had no-heighted that afternoon or evening. They were marked by high spirits, lots of teasing and a real sense of camaraderie. And for a young girl along for the ride, they were always a thrilling experience. He made everyone he spoke with feel good about their performance, potential, or future in the event. His optimism and enthusiasm were contagious and I think he inspired many. I, in any event, always enjoyed being privy to these frequent but special occasions and this unique brand of somewhat exclusive kinship.
Away from the track, my dad was just that, my dad. He took my sister to drill team practice. He carpooled my cheerleading squad to all of our games, he drove me to school every morning, he teased me, scolded me, helped me and supported me. Most of all, he made us feel loved and taught us never to settle, that we were special. He was generous and encouraging and surprisingly didn’t give, as he would say, “a rat’s ass” if we ever competed in sports or not. He wanted us to follow our own passion and had faith in us that we could and would. He led great, passionate, and sometimes loud political discussions at the dinner table. He was a sports fanatic and we had three TV’s in the house (when most families only had one.) He often had a Lakers game on in one room, a Dodger’s game on in the other, and the news on all the time. He bellowed at the TV during Ram’s games, and I along with him. Yelling exquisitely from the sidelines at sporting events was an art I inherited from him, much to the chagrin of my own boys when they started competitive sports. He loved Tarzan movies and put salt on green apples and watermelon. He had a strong social conscience and made me come in from playing outside to watch the coverage of JFK’s assassination, the moon landing, and the start of the Watergate hearings, saying they were historical events and I would and should never forget them. He was right of course. And he could do one helluva jack-knife off a diving board Herb invented into our backyard swimming pool too.
I guess I was always conscious of the fact that people in the sport seemed drawn to him and he kept company with some it’s heavy weights – Dutch Warmerdam, Peyton Jordan, Bill Bowerman, Jim Bush, Ron Morris, George Dales, Bert Bonanno, John Chaplain, Verne Wolfe, Ernie Bullard, Jim Tuppenny, Ken Shannon, Don Ruh, John Mitchell, and the man he would later regard as not only a close friend but one of the foremost experts in the vault field, coach Tom Tellez. Being in the company of such giants in track and field at the time was both thrilling and inspiring to be sure, but it truly was my father’s interaction and rapport with the athletes, both world class and unknown, that fueled his passion for the event, and made him the most happy. My father died in his prime, he was only 51 years old.
It wasn’t until I was an adult, and sadly, during his illness (brain cancer) and after his death that I realized the impact he’d made on so many, and on the event itself. I remember Bob Seagren completely breaking down at his graveside, and the letters cards and notes that poured in from strangers all over the world after he passed away was almost overwhelming. We had no idea of the depth and breadth of his reach, nor the deep appreciation felt by those he’d touched. Even now, I am still moved and so proud when someone comes up to me and says “Hi, you may not know me, but I knew your father. Boy, he was a great man.” And when my own boys, who now work “in the business” at UCS, come home from a conference or a meet and tell me someone told them a story about their grandfather, that is the greatest gift and legacy of all.
3) When was the first time you realized your dad was a very big deal in our sport? Did you want to vault and did he encourage you to vault? When do you first remember girls vaulting for fun?
My first inkling that he was “big deal” came when I was a sophmore in high school, in 1971.
Seeing him in his own element was one thing, and I grew used to it taking literally hours to walk from the stands after a meet to the parking lot with him, for all the people that wanted to stop and chat. But seeing him in my element was quite another.
We had a career day at school and the teacher coordinating it was asking for volunteers to come speak to kids about their professions. The idea was that students would move from room to room, listening to accountants, doctors, lawyers, teachers, nurses, or secretaries etc., talk about their occupations. I approached this teacher, Mr. DeCrona, and being the doting daughter I was, suggested that my dad could come in and give a talk. When I told Mr. DeCrona what my father did for a living (that he made vaulting poles) his reception was, well, let’s just say lukewarm to be polite — but he reluctantly promised he would try “to fit him in somewhere.” I went home thrilled and asked my father. Dad agreed and had a suggestion (because he was always enthusiastic about anything he did.) He said “hey, what if I brought a vaulter or two along? That would make it more real and interesting — maybe talk about the Olympics or something.” I passed this along to Mr. DeCrona who then asked me for my father’s work number to coordinate it all, acting as if it was just one more stupid detail he had to deal with.
A week before career day, Mr. DeCrona pulled me aside in the hallway. He seemed very agitated. (I thought I was in trouble.) He said “Geez Debbie, you didn’t tell me he was bringing along Bob Seagren!!! Word has gotten out. I have every coach in the area wanting to bring their team to listen. Now I have to book the whole damned performing arts building to fit everyone in!”
Needless to say we packed the place and I took great pleasure in knowing that ol’ Doctor What’s-his-name was stuck out in the biology lab with only a handful of kids listening to him. For the rest of the week I had kids who I didn’t know coming up to me asking “was that your dad with Bob Seagren? Wow!” I grew a head taller that week. When my friends started telling me how cool my dad was, than I started to believe it!
Interestingly, I never had a desire to vault. I grew up on a cul-de-sac loaded with kids (Catholic, Mormon, 7th Day Adventist, you name it – there were a slew of us – 36 kids, give or take a rug rat, within 10 households) There was plenty to do — we all had swimming pools and there was never any reason to leave the neighborhood for entertainment. We played team sports year round, had a high jump pit in our back yard, and played poker and board games in someone’s garage all summer long. Really, it never occurred to me. My dad didn’t encourage me in that way either. He always supported me in whatever I was doing, but I think he figured if it was something I wanted to do, I would come to him, he was never one to push us in a specific direction unless we came up with the idea first. But, in general, I was just busy doing other stuff.
My first memory of girls vaulting for fun was actually at one of the first Pole Vault Summits, I think around 1994. It was before Melissa Price blazed a trail through the legal system in California, to let girls compete in the event in high school. A couple of girls showed up with poles and wanted to vault. Bob Fraley and Steve and Lane looked at each other and said “why the heck not?”
Later, I was never more proud of all of these men as when they stood up to USA Track and Field a few years later when funding for the Summit was threatened if they continued to let women vault at the Summit. Those three men just said, (and I’m paraphrasing) “Do what you have to do, but the girls are staying.”
To be continued…
I am not sure if you remember me. I was Herb’s daughter-in-law. I just happened across this while watching the Olympics. Of course I have wonderful memories of Herb and you described him perfectly. But I also remember you dad. He was such a gentle soul but always so much fun to be around. And he knew his business about the vaulting poles. He and Herb made an incredible team. I hope all is well with you and your family. My best to you!!
Debbie: I think we are related. I’m the son of Gertrude White Williams. I sent an email to Gmail, but if you don’t get that, let me know the correct email address. Since this message was all about family, I didn’t think it appropriate to put it on your blog. Lowell
This is great history. I used to Jump with Steve in old Rusty Crooks,This is it Ranch in Reno. Steve gave us the old blemished poles I have great memories from the early 80s He is a great person and patriarch of the sport.
Hola! I’ve been reading your blog for a while now and finally got the courage to go ahead and give you a shout out from
Kingwood Tx! Just wanted to tell you keep up the fantastic work!
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You never sent back the picture I “loaned” you of Herb and your dad at the 1973 Texas relays. Just kidding. He was great. Billy Dalton
You may remember me, although we met only a few times. I just discovered your article (written almost a year ago?) about your father on line and hope this note reaches you. Thanks for sharing the memories of your father. It probably won’t surprise you to know that your father was a true father to me, also. I was one of many that he cared for. We spent many, many hours together and shared many, many stories. He was a mentor, a friend, and, well, a father that I did not really have. These are some of my best memories. To have been cared for by such a man was the greatest of gifts, beyond the championships and the world records, which would have not been possible without him. He was the most wonderful man I have known.
I knew George Moore from his working with my uncle, Herb Jenks, my father Warren Jenks, and Art Meyer.
I have many memories of uncle Herb at track meets and events filming various vaulters on super 8 film for possible improvements to the pole of the day. I had the opportunity to meet Bob Seagren and his father Art Seagren a few times and they were the kindest and most genuine of people.
As my father was part of the sales arm of the company, the family got to go to many events and see the business side of things. Sporting goods shows, track meets, dealer visits and many hours listening to my father promote the product line fill my memories.
Not only did they find anything heavy to hang on vaulting poles, they were always coming up with things to lift at then end of a “sila-flex” fishing rod, built on the same principals as the vaulting poles.
My father was very proficient with a fly rod and demonstrated the Sila-flex line to no end as a crowd of fishermen watched and got in line to purchase the latest improved version.
It was interesting to read of your early memories of your father and family. Like George, Herb also passed in his prime at the age of 59, in 1979. He was honored to be in 1974 to be inducted into the NSGA, sporting goods dealers, hall of fame. There is also brief bio published.
In their brief lifetimes they produced many different sporting goods out of their ventures. Vaulting poles, ski & poles, tennis & racquetball rackets, fishing rods, arrow shafts, re-curve & compound bows, golf club shafts, you name they made it, or had a hand in the development of many sporting good innovations.
Todd E.A. Larson has written a book about Sila-flex. For those with any interest they can find it at the link provided or at Amazon.
NSGA Hall of fame link:
A Documentary History of Sila-Flex Fishing Rods, 1948-1963
Todd E.A. Larson
8.5″ x 11″ Softcover • 254 Pages • Black and White Images
Sila-Flex was the product of five men who originated the first hollow fiberglass fishing rods while working for National Research & Manufacturing Company (NARMCO) in Corona Del Mar, California in 1946. Having gained experience impregnating fiberglass for airplane parts during World War II, the NARMCO team, led by Herb Jenks, developed the first fiberglass fishing rods made by using a removable metal mandrel, leaving the glass rods hollow.
In 1948 five men who founded the Conolon rod division at NARMCO left to found their own company, which they called Pacific Laminates Company in Orange, California, soon moving to a state-of-the-art factory in Costa Mesa. Here, the firm utilized the methods they had pioneered at NARMCO and added new developments, aided by Herb Jenks’ numerous patents, to launch the legendary Sila-Flex line of fishing rods. Considered by many to be the finest rods of their era, Sila-Flex launched in 1949 and in the ensuing thirteen years crafted blanks and finished rods for all types and kinds of fishing, from delicate fly rods to deep sea trolling rods.
Here, for the first time ever, is the history of this great firm as told by the documents, catalogs, and articles that it produced. It also contains a detailed history of the firm by Dr. Todd E.A. Larson and a foreword written by Warren Jenks, brother of Pacific Laminate’s co-founder Herb Jenks and himself a manufacturer’s rep for Sila-Flex up until the time it was sold to Browning in 1963.
This book contains all Sila-Flex catalogs for the entire era that it produced rods, as well as the introductory Browning-Silaflex catalog from 1963, as well as a plethora of appendices, ads, etc..
Your dad always made me feel good when I spoke with him. I remember talking with George briefly at a restaurant in Fresno where you and Steve were sitting with a large group of athletes at your table. I think Randy Matson was eating with you guys. Your dad took time to talk to me when I passed by and made my day.
I will always remember your dad giving me a pole when I did not have any money at the time. I did pay him back later…, I think. I was so embarrassed but he made me feel OK at the time. Sitting in his office, I think it is the office photo which you posted of your father in front of the wood paneling, I was humming and haawing about not having any money. Ah, now I remember… my mom paid your dad after I told her what I did.
Well it’s been awhile but still clear as yesterday. Thanks for your story.
Greg, Thanks for sharing your memories of him. He never worried about the poles he gave away, if someone needed a hand, he’d lend it. I think he always felt “what goes around comes around.” And he was right–look at all these years later–I just saw the graphic handout you created — “5 Basic Guidelines for Pole Vaulting” for the Summit – terrific! And the documentary you’re doing on the women’s vault-such a needed and worthy project. (Send me your financial contribution info and I will post it on the blog etc)
Thank you for your hard work and for a special remembrance–it’s been so rewarding, especially for my boys, to hear these special stories.
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What a thoroughly full account of your Dad’s involvement in Pole Vaulting history. Though I met him only a few brief times, you have shared over the years some of this history. Now it’s been written by you , his daughter, in this interview and will be there for the Sports World to know and enjoy. “Carry On” Debbie, Steve, Michael and Chris ! George Moore is on the sidelines cheering you on !
I remember one time I came down to Costa Mesa to pick up a pole for myself from your dad. After talking about the pole he would show me some sequential clips of Kjell pointing out how important it was to square up at the plant. It was a valuable coaching point that I still use today as a vault coach. By the way, I PR’d that next weekend at Mt. Sac. What a guy!
Frank, your recollection sounds so typical of him, thanks for sharing it. Mt Sac was always special to him so it is fitting you PR’d there! I’m sure he enjoyed your visit to the plant as much as you did and took note of your personal accomplishment! Keep up the good work and thanks for sharing a great story!
This is such a heartwarming story. Knowing you and your family has been and will continue to be significant in my life. George’s laugh, smile, and sincere nature are remembered by those who knew him in the “regular” world. I see these and his other wonderful traits in his daughters and grandchildren.
I’m eager to read the next chapter.
Steph, As one who knew him as the regular guy he was, many many thanks for your warm characterization of him in everyday life. You are and have always been family to us and we are both fortunate to have known each others parents, histories, and siblings. (Also gives us each understanding and insight when the other inexplicably goes nutty at times!)
I”m so glad you knew him, and my mother, and my kids will take your comments as a high compliment indeed! Much love kiddo.
Thank you for your continued support and friendship.
Great memories here….I met Herb when he was still at SkyPole. What a great guy. I remember going down to Costa Mesa many times…the best was when George and Herb set up shop for the Cata-Poles. They scrambled around gathering all the heavy stuff they could find to hang on the middle of the pole and get the early flex-numbers. Those great men were so kind and encouraging to me and all vaulters. Too many memories to explain but all are good. Thanks so much for sharing….and I love reading your columns! All the best! Dick Railsback
Dick, Thank you so much for sharing such a great memory! And many thanks again for your continued support of the blog, I appreciate that so much. Hearing these terrific recollections from others has made this whole endeavor so much more special for me and my family as well. Thanks for taking the time. During my search for pics, I came upon a nice one of you in your Bruin uniform he had clipped from a news article . Thanks Dick.
Your Father was a mentor to me even though we competed against each other he was good competitor and many stories of George taking negative stuff and turning it into GOLD. I love telling your boys the stories of how he was a great competitor to learn from!
Bruce – He thought the same of you and always liked and respected you. My boys and I all appreciate your stories and kind memories. Thank you for sharing.
And now that you mention it – I remember when the 550+ Catapole was banned from the 1972 Olympics for being what officials called an ‘unfair advantage’ as they claimed it wasn’t in widespread distribution before the games (which was not true, but nevermind.) Afterwards, he used that in a huge marketing campaign, calling it the “unfair advantage” and had it put on every pole label. They couldn’t keep them in stock!
Many thanks again Bruce for reading and commenting, our families go back a long way and will continue a long way forward.
Yes my boss at Sky-pole said “do not let anyone know our Blue sky-pole was banned it is hush hush. I disagreed but George took the negative and turned it into a positive. We went from 9,000 poles to 1800 that year!
Wow. Brings back lots of memories. I remember that career day. Thanks,
Doug — Ha ha – as a former boyfriend, I’m sure you remember my dad in an entirely different way having nothing at all to do with the pole vault!! He was the guy you had to face if you got me home late! (but really, even then, he was a pretty good guy eh?)
Thanks for dropping in and commenting on the blog Doug – good to hear from you.
I never met George Moore, but he was on the phone with me in college so many times to discuss poles and how they worked. I learned about his pole tests with my favorite vaulter, Bob Seagren and his stories were great! Pacer American set me up with my first set of free poles and I always called to say ‘hi’ after he was so nice to me, as we ended up talking about vaulting and I loved that! I felt very special talking to the man who made the poles and knew so many vaulters I idolized once I became a vaulter. A really good guy who cared about the athletes in the vault. Great article!
Bob – Thank you so very much for reading and taking the time to share your experience. He was always happiest when he was on the phone with guys like you! Thanks for sharing.
Really well written article. I feel honored to have met George Moore at the 1971 or maybe ’72 NJCAA meet in Mesa, Arizona. He inspired me because he took his time to talk to me and I believed he was interested in what I had to say. His sincere interest in my vault gave me the confidence in myself to believe I could achieve my goals. He was a motivating man and I have tried to live my life also as a motivator. Thank you for the article.
Thank you Jerry for reading and most of all, sharing a kind memory. We all see those in our lives through our own special lens, it’s wonderful to see him through someone else’s! Many thanks.
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