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Howard Schmertz, Millrose Games director, dead at 88

Stacy Dragila, the 2000 Olympic gold medalist pole

Stacy Dragila, the 2000 Olympic gold medalist pole vaulter, and Howard Schmertz chat before a press conference for the Millrose Games in New York, Thursday, Feb. 3, 2005. Credit: AP / Bebeto Matthews

Howard Schmertz, the pre-eminent official of American track and field, who for more than a half-century had a guiding hand in organizing the world's oldest and most prestigious indoor meet, the Millrose Games, died Thursday of congestive heart failure in Port Washington. He was 88.

An attorney by trade but track patriot through genetics and passion, Schmertz, a North Bellmore resident most of his life, followed his father, Fred, as unpaid Millrose director -- always dressed in tuxedos for the games -- and later, as the only two non-athletes inducted into the Millrose Hall of Fame.

Both men also are in the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in Washington Heights, and Howard Schmertz is a member of the International Jewish Hall of Fame. Since 2004, a "Howard Schmertz Lifetime Achievement Award" has been given annually to the sport's top promoter.

Never a competitive athlete himself, though he took his recreational tennis game seriously, Schmertz forged business and personal relationships with the giants of track and field, from 1960s high jumper John Thomas to 1980s middle-distance star Mary Decker; from nine-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis to indoor mile sensation Eamonn Coghlan, and thousands more.

Schmertz's father, an attorney for the John Wanamaker Co., had been involved with Millrose from the time that department store created the meet in 1908 and served as games director for 42 years. Howard, technically his father's assistant until 1975, a year before Fred Schmertz died, in fact began running the Millrose operation in 1951, when Fred suffered the first of two heart attacks.

Howard continued as meet director until 2004, when he was designated director emeritus and remained active as a Millrose consultant. Throughout his tenure, until the meet moved to the Armory in Washington Heights in 2012, Millrose extended its run as the oldest annual sporting event at Madison Square Garden, having debuted there in 1914.

As track evolved from amateur to "shamateur" -- when marquee performers could demand under-the-table appearance money -- and then to "trust funds" that theoretically kept payments in escrow, Schmertz was able to assemble dynamic fields for around $40,000.

But full-scale professionalism appeared in the 1980s, and by the turn of the century, budgets in excess of $200,000 were insufficient. That brought the need for major sponsors and television money, yet a Mom-and-Pop Schmertz system -- Howard and his wife, Judy, working nights in their Long Island basement -- remained central to the meet's success.

They had met on a blind date in November 1952, and Judy saw her first Millrose -- her first track meet -- two months later. They were married the following summer. In addition to his wife, Schmertz is survived by their two daughters, Amy Weinstein and Carol Katz, and four grandchildren.

Howard Miles Schmertz was born June 9, 1925, in the Bronx and traveled to his first Olympics -- the 1928 Amsterdam Games -- when he was 3, though he didn't actually attend any events. (He stayed at his parents' hotel, baby-sat by his older sister Justine.)

That was the Olympics, Schmertz loved to tell, when Canadian sprinter Percy Williams completed a gold-medal sweep of the 100 and 200 meters and was told by Fred Schmertz, "Mr. Williams, you have just qualified for the Millrose Games."

Howard graduated DeWitt Clinton High School in 1941 and served in World War II as an Army infantryman, and it was then that he missed his only two Millrose Games since 1933. In early 1945, during the battle of the Vosges Mountains, Schmertz was sent home on a hospital ship.

"I wasn't really wounded," he said. "My feet were frozen." He was lying in his bunk, sailing toward New York, cut off from any news or mail since the previous October, but "Somebody had a radio and the armed forces news came on," he said. "They announced that Jimmy Rafferty had won the Wanamaker Mile at the Millrose Games."

Every year thereafter, Schmertz would tell Rafferty -- a regular spectator at Millrose -- that story.

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