Ode to an unassuming running hero

I’d been hoping to interview Fred Liechty at some point, to get his perspective on logging 85,000 miles without ever investing in a “real” pair of running shoes.

Unfortunately, Fred, who’d moved to Goshen, Ind., to be near his children, died last week at age 84.

Fred Liechty

When my dad drove up to his funeral last Thursday, he was surprised to learn Fred had been inducted into the Bluffton College Hall of Fame in three sports — including football, a sport his high school hadn’t even offered back then. Though my dad worked with Fred for 29 years, inheriting his post as president of the First Bank of Berne upon Fred’s retirement in 1993, Fred had never mentioned that fact.

“I knew that he was a great athlete in high school,” my dad said. “But he never mentioned it. He was a very humble man.”

Though I didn’t really know Fred very well, I consider him to be indirectly responsible for my passion for running. Fred inspired my dad to take up the sport, and it was my dad who inspired me.

“Fred was running from home to work and back every day from about the time I started working at the bank in 1964,” Dad said. “He never talked much about it,  or bragged about it. He just kept on running,” year-round, every day but Sunday, no matter how hot or cold, rain or snow. Not even the Blizzard of 1978, when drifts reached the roof of our garage, stopped Fred from running, Dad recalled.

“For quite some time he would run to work in his suit and dress shoes. If it was hot out he would leave his suit jacket at work. He also was famous for putting heal and toe plates on his shoes, so they wouldn’t wear out so quick. Fred was very frugal. Eventually he would run in shorts and a T-shirt, leaving his suits and dress shirts at the bank.”

Dad started running on and off at home, then took up the sport more seriously when the bank hired Jack Shoaf, a former cross country runner about Dad’s age, in the 1970s.

Dad and Jack became running buddies, eventually running several races together, including three marathons. In 1974 they organized the first Swiss Days Race, a 5K and 1-mile kids race sponsored then, as now, by the First Bank of Berne.

Fred, then vice president, stoically continued logging miles all the while. He didn’t enter many races himself, though he did run two marathons. He let the younger guys take the spotlight with the bank’s race as well.

“Jack and I started the Swiss Days race, but Fred was not against it since he was always running,” Dad said. “Had Fred not been running, Jack and I might not have ever started running and maybe would not have started the Swiss Days race program.”

The way Dad remembers it, Fred ran the way he eventually led the bank: quietly and steadily, without much fuss.

“Fred was a very compassionate man, and cared deeply for those who needed help with more than money. He would meet with any customer who needed to talk with someone. I never saw Fred get angry with anyone, customer or employee” — though he did speak his mind to an IRS agent who once demanded information on a customer.

A faithful Mennonite who held firm to his pacifist beliefs, “Fred calmly but firmly proceeded to tell the agent that he would not get any information from him, but that the government was wasting our tax dollars and definitely should not spend tax dollars on any war effort.”

Fred kept running until age 80 or so. Today not only am I running at least in part because of Fred’s dedication to the sport so many years ago, but the running culture at the First Bank of Berne is stronger than ever, with at least 10 employees who are runners, including the current president, Kent Liechty.*

*Kent Liechty is not related to Fred, or if he is, it’s a distant connection. Unlike Fred, Kent is a regular — and competitive — racer.

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