You might have seen him out there on one of those nasty winter mornings — the kind that separates the fair-weather jogger from the hardy few who will face, without complaint, a windchill of 30 below. And while you might have shaken your head in admiration or concern, one thing was clear: You were going to see him again the next day, and the day after that.
Such was the passion that drove Wendell DeBoer of St. Anthony Park to become a legendary member of the no-excuses group known as the United States Running Streak Association. On Monday, friends, family and fellow streak runners gathered to celebrate a life that included academic achievements, running and family. DeBoer died April 22 at 89.
"The man did not know the meaning of idle time," said Bob DeBoer, one of his five children.
DeBoer took up running at age 48, in the early 1970s, "when running was not a 'thing,' '' his son recalled. Runners then didn't have today's sophisticated cold-weather gear, Bob DeBoer added. "The whole routine of dressing for a 'deep winter' run was a story in itself — thermal long underwear, the gray sweats, socks over hands and gloves."
Wendell DeBoer grew up in tough conditions and rough weather. He was born in Aberdeen, S.D., in 1924, to a family that farmed in the Huron area through the Great Depression. He graduated from high school there at 16, attended South Dakota State University for a year, and then returned home to help on the family farm until the end of World War II. He served in the U.S. Army from 1946 to 1948, then returned to college and there he met his future wife, Marjorie Rockwell. They were married 63 years.
After graduation, DeBoer taught high school vocational agriculture before moving to St. Paul in 1955 to attend graduate school at the University of Minnesota. In 1959, he completed his doctorate in education, then taught at the U. He became assistant to the dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine in 1967 and remained there until he retired in 1993.
DeBoer took up running when found himself bound too long behind a desk, Bob DeBoer said. "His dad died of a heart attack in his mid 60s, and my Dad just decided to start up."
Then, at age 69, after running thousands of miles, Wendell DeBoer also developed heart problems and underwent double-bypass surgery. He was back on the trail as soon as he recovered, and by the time he laced up for the last time at 85, DeBoer had run more than 66,000 miles and 100 races. During one period, he ran every day for more than 10 years.
The streak runners association, founded in 2000, operates on the honor system. To qualify, a candidate must run at least one mile each day for a year. On New Year's Day 2010, DeBoer marked the holiday by achieving a new one-year running streak. He was over 85 at the time — the first person over 80 to reach that goal. His record as the oldest daily streak runner still stands, according to the association.
In a column on streak running, the association's co-founder, John Strumsky, gave some advice that was applicable to Wendell DeBoer.
"Your running streak should complement and enhance the rest of your life," Strumsky wrote. "Keep your running fresh. Never trust strange dogs or the people who say they won't bother you. Own your streak and your life on your own terms. You only have this one life to live."
DeBoer is survived by five children: Steve, of Rochester; Dave, of Manchester, Mo.; Sharon, of Waterville, Minn; and Wendy and Bob of St. Paul, as well as 10 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. His wife died in February.