Elementary school track built to honor ‘the happy runner’

Alanton Elementary School’s new track is the only one at a public elementary school in Virginia Beach, but that’s not the only reason it’s special. It’s dedicated to the memory of a well-known school administrator, Joe Benson, who died in June 2014.

The one-tenth-mile-long track opened at the start of this school year. A dedication ceremony was held Sept. 20. That day also featured the inaugural Jog4Joe 5K run in memory of Benson.

A memorial for the late Joe Benson at the Alanton Elementary School track that was built in his honor. (Kelly Kultys/Southside Daily)
A memorial for the late Joe Benson at the Alanton Elementary School track that was built in his honor. (Kelly Kultys/Southside Daily)

“We always knew how wonderful my dad was, and I knew he was well liked and well loved by a lot of people,” Meredith Hills, Benson’s daughter said. “But to see the impact that he’s had on people’s lives even after he’s been gone has been amazing and really reassuring to our whole family that even after he’s gone, the way he lived his life will still inspire people.”

The blue track features two engraved benches and a large sign remembering Benson. Hills said there are plans to add 17 trees around the oval, with circuit-styled fitness equipment in between. She said they have the money for the additions because of the outpouring of support from the community; more than the original goal of $25,000 needed to build the track was raised.

The idea for a track began in July 2014, when a teacher who worked with Benson during his time as an assistant principal at Alanton suggested it to Hills. Hills thought it was fitting because Benson was known as an avid runner. One of her friends had nicknamed him “the happy runner.”

The new Alanton Elementary School track. (Kelly Kultys/Southside Daily)
The new Alanton Elementary School track, one-tenth of a mile long. (Kelly Kultys/Southside Daily)

“He was a Marine and when he was 20 he went to boot camp, and he had to run to get ready for boot camp – that was the first time he had ever really run,” Hills said. “And I think he literally ran almost every single day the rest of his life.”

She and her family worked with Anthony Arnold, the director of facilities planning and construction, and members of Alanton’s staff, including new Principal Charlene Garran, to get the track up just over a year later.

Garran never worked with Benson, but she said she feels she came to know him through the process of building the track.

“I wore my Jog4Joe shirt to a meeting and Dr. Benson was an administrator in the division, and a lot of people walked over to me and were like, ‘Oh, Joe Benson,’ and they had so many wonderful stories to share about him,” Garran said.

Garran called the track an “outdoor classroom” for their physical education classes. Community members are welcome to use it as well. Hills said friends have told her their children have learned to ride their bikes on the track.

“Every time I’m here, there’s someone on the track,” Garran said.

Garran and Hills said the addition has been well received by the school and its community.

“My son, the first day they ran on it at PE, goes, ‘Mom, it was just so cool. It was like everyone was saying this is the coolest track, I love this track,’ and it meant so much to him, because it was Pop-Pop’s track,” Hills said.

Hills and Garran would like to do more Jog4Joe 5K runs. For now, though, Hills said she is just happy to see her father’s memory live on at the track.

“He had a very healthy lifestyle, and unfortunately he ended up with lung cancer, which was just kind of crushing because he never smoked a day in his life, ate well, took really good care of himself,” Hills said. “It’s just wonderful that his legacy here at school will be something that will help people continue to stay healthy and encourage that kind of life.”

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