Some people might think that the manner of Ernie Chatman's death proved his lifestyle wrong.
I think the opposite.
I think: What a way to live; what a way to die.
Chatman, as you might have already heard, came within a few minutes of going out with his running shoes on.
On Sunday evening, he had recently finished a short jog — the only kind he did any more — and jumped in the shower when, as his daughter, Erin Sullivan said, "his heart just stopped."
Chatman, 66, would have been a marvel in any town. He ran every day for more than 24 years. He completed the circuit of running a marathon in every state, came within four states of completing it twice, and accumulated age-group champion trophies almost as fast as he piled up finisher medals.
But because Brooksville is not as fitness-crazed as, say, Boulder, Colo., he stood out more here. Even the people who didn't know who he was — a minority, I assume, because of the number of lives he touched as a coach and teacher — had certainly seen him, lean and usually shirtless, jogging on the brick streets near his home in downtown Brooksville or on U.S. 41, past the fast food joints he shunned.
"He was an institution," said former mayor (and former Chatman physical education student) Lara Bradburn.
So, people drew lessons from his example. And, as with the early death of author Jim Fixx, the face of 1970s running boom, they could be inclined to draw the wrong kind of lesson.
All that running, people might think. What a waste.
In fact, running might well have extended Chatman's life; like Fixx, Chatman had a family history of heart disease.
But the point it really misses is this: Chatman loved running and failing to do what you enjoy (within limits, of course) is just a prolonged way of dying young.
And, so, I have a hunch that without his running accomplishments, he probably wouldn't have piled up so many non-running accomplishments:
Leading the Brooksville team to Dixie League World Series victory in 1983, compiling the school record for most wins in basketball and baseball, coaching the Hernando High state champion cross-county team in 1997 and the second-place girls softball team in 2000, being inducted into the Florida Athletic Coaches Hall of Fame.
There was no scandal attached to his name, no grumbling, at least that I ever heard, that he cut corners or played favorites. Former players talk about him with reverence. His running friends were devoted enough that they gathered outside Red Mule Pub on Monday for impromptu memorial run. Family members speak of him with pride, amusement and deep love.
Other than spending more time with grandkids, which I know he would have loved, what did he leave undone? Not much.
Chatman was famously unreflective. He had a hard time expressing his passion for coaching and running. You had to measure it by, for example, the enthusiasm and accuracy with which he could recall the exact pitch count of a key moment in a decades-old baseball game.
And after declining health forced him to end his streak last year, he talked about training runs with his teams and a manic weekend trip to pick up one more marathon (and one more age-group trophy) in one more state.
His eyes lit up and the split times spilled forth. He made it clear that running had brought him nothing but joy. And he got to do it right to the end.
Way to go, Ernie!
Contact Dan DeWitt at [email protected]; follow @ddewitttimes.