Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Walt Pierson's Passion is Running

By Bob Shryock, Gloucester County Times
  Walt Pierson has run roughly 61,200 miles since he was 38 years old and a neighbor whipped him at tennis to expose a lack of conditioning. That equates to about 10 round trips to Anaheim to see Mickey and is more than twice the circumference of the earth.

"It's been a long journey," understates the 73-year-old running man from West Deptford. He laughed, but only slightly, when it was pointed out that at his current pace he might reach 100,000 miles in 20 years when he hits 93.

But challenges aren't new to young old-timer Walt Pierson.
Walt Pierson

Fifty-six years after appearing in the 1953 Woodbury High School senior class play "Ah Men" (His role? "Beats the heck out of me.") Pierson made his local theatrical return recently as Norman in "On Golden Pond" at First Presbyterian Church in Haddon Heights. While Pierson may not be the reincarnation of Henry Fonda, who won an Oscar for his 1981 role at age 76, he captured many of Fonda's mannerisms and was a favorite of audiences that included several WHS classmates.

Recruited by director Steve Allen, a Sketch Club regular, Pierson was told by several it was a role "made for you."

And Kay Pierson, Walt's wife, said, simply, "He's just being himself."

Pierson surprised himself by memorizing a 64-page playbook in which he had lines on 55 pages in an eight-week rehearsal schedule.

"I was dreading going off the book. It was a daunting challenge; I had a sleepless night or two," he says.

So are we going to see more of Walt Pierson, the born-again actor?

Perhaps not.

"There aren't that many roles for a 73-year-old," Walt says.

Reminded that ageless Clint Eastwood is 78, Pierson offered, "Well, maybe. It's quite a commitment of time, but I never say never. I have a tendency to throw myself into things. That's because I want to be the best I can be."

He's been the best he could be running the roads with dogged persistence near his Green-Fields home, reaching 60,000 miles last April to commemorate his late mother's birthday and meticulously logging each daily four- or five-mile effort despite a plethora of injuries and illnesses (a stroke while on vacation in New Zealand, heart attack, cancer surgery, hernia) which remarkably have sidelined him for only brief periods over 35 years.

"I wanted to feel better," he explains. "My neurologist and cardiologist said without running, I wouldn't be alive. None of my (physical) problems kept me off the streets for long."

Despite not running competitively in high school, Pierson has run over 30 road races the last two years, frequently placing first in his age group, has run two Boston marathons, and has officiated with Woodbury two-time Olympian Browning Ross. He's run the length of every road in Gloucester and Salem counties. He routinely runs six days a week. His tour de force was running the entire length of the Delaware River, from Hope Creek to a farmer's field in New York State, between 1996 and 1998.

"I'm always champing at the bit," says Pierson, whose competitive tally is more than 500 races. "And I enjoy running as much as ever. I've never been overweight (5-foot-6, 135 pounds), never smoked."

Person retired in 1994 after 14 years with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). He was federal coordinating officer for FEMA's Illinois Disaster Field Office during the 1993 floods. He also worked for the state highway department.

"But people know me for running," Pierson says. "Some ask me, 'Walt, are you still running?' I'm proud of it. It's more mental than physical. I just keep going."

Now they know him as a rediscovered actor, too.

bshryock@sjnewsco.com  March 5, 2009

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