BROOKSVILLE — A tip from longtime Hernando High School coach Ernie Chatman started Gretchen Pingley on a quest that uncovered maybe the most decorated high school athlete in county history.
Chatman knew only that Hernando High had won a state track and field championship many years ago, said Pingley, a fellow member of the selection committee for Hernando High School Athletic Hall of Fame.
After questioning old-timers and getting nowhere, Pingley said, she checked the website of the Florida High School Athletic Association and was stunned to see that the championship came the very first year such titles were awarded, which happened to be 100 years ago.
"I was thrilled. I thought this was really neat. Hernando High School has the first FHSAA championship (track) team ever — ever. And we beat a team like (runnerup) Hillsborough High," she said.
Even more stunning were the feats of one athlete who had a hand in every point the Leopards scored at the 1915 meet, Ray Pearson.
In a display of versatility worthy of his contemporary Jim Thorpe, Pearson won four individual events: the 100-, 220- and 440-yard dashes and the shot put. He also led the team to a victory in the meet's only relay, which covered 880 yards.
After vanishing from state records the next year, Pearson reappeared in 1917, when he duplicated his sweep of the three sprints.
More sifting through records yielded more amazement, said Pingley, a retired guidance counselor at Hernando High. One of the record holders for most individual track and field titles in Florida at nine is Houston McTear, a phenom of the sport who set an unofficial world record for the 100-yard dash in the 1975 state meet and went on to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Sitting two places behind McTear (along with four others) is Pearson, with seven titles.
The conditions were no doubt primitive, Chatman said. The meet was almost certainly held at the University of Florida, which he believes was the only track in the state worthy of the name. Just driving there from Brooksville, at the dawn of the age of the automobile, had to have been a challenge, he said.
"He had to get there first. It is amazing," said Chatman, whose recollection of his tip is slightly different from Pingley's. He said he knew Hernando had won the first state meet, but knew nothing of the circumstances and nothing of Pearson.
Pearson's times in the 1915 meet are, as expected, unimpressive. But the 10.4-second time he recorded in the 100-yard dash two years later was "pretty good," Chatman said.
Slower times won small-school categories in the state meet until shortly before the event was discontinued in 1985, and the time of Earl Deen, who won the same event for Hernando in 1970, was only 0.3 seconds faster.
The hall's induction ceremony was Thursday night at the school. The new class of members will be recognized again at halftime of tonight's home football game against Central High School.
Sadly, there is nobody available to represent Pearson, Pingley said, partly because attempts to document his life off the track led to a series of dead ends.
She was told there are no school records before 1921, meaning no evidence he graduated. Because World War I was raging at the time, she assumes he joined the military but has not been able to nail that down, either.
He is not related to any of the Pearsons currently living in Hernando, said local historian Frazier Mountain, who found only one hint of the boy's family ties. According to the Brooksville's old Southern Argus newspaper, the name of the Hernando High principal at the time was I.T. Pearson.
If there is doubt about Pearson's background, Pingley said, there's no doubt about his worthiness for the hall. Its job is to tell the stories of the school's athletes, and she feels as though she uncovered the long-lost first chapter.
"This," she said, "is the beginning of the legacy of Hernando sports."
Contact Dan DeWitt at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow @ddewitttimes.