ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
When it comes to athletic success, Jerry Harder could have been the poster child for the adage, “Good things come in small packages.”
Standing 5-7 and weighing 145 pounds soaking wet as a high school senior, Harder arguably was one of the best track-and-field athletes ever to pass through Hillsboro High School.
Harder was successful at numerous events during the mid-1950s-including a consistent 100-yard-dash time in the 10-second range. But his enduring claim to fame is the mark he set in the long jump.
A three-time state champion in that event during his HHS career, his leap of 23-21/2 in 1956 remains the school standard 45 years later.
“I was not big to have that kind of power and that kind of speed,” said Harder, who now lives in Lakewood, Colo. “I was very short for the kind of speed I had.”
Training wasn’t key to his success, either. Like most athletes of that era, Harder worked on his athletic skills only during the appropriate season.
“I didn’t do a lot of what they do now, like weightlifting or any of that kind of stuff,” he said. “Basically, I didn’t do a whole lot of training, period. It’s a wonder I came out as healthy as I did.”
His biggest advantage may have been his mental focus and competitive spirit, he said.
“When I applied myself to something, I put myself 120 percent into it,” he said. “I didn’t lose easily. If somebody was going to beat me, they had to work at it.”
Harder’s natural ability and competitive spirit emerged early in life. As a fourth-grader at Peabody Grade School, he competed successfully against kids three and four years older than he was.
“The track and field coach came over one day and watched me broad jump during recess,” Harder recalled. “Somehow, he got the teachers to let me out of school and put me in competition at one of the junior high track-and-field meets.
“I went through the competition against eighth-graders and asked the coach, ‘How did I do?’ He said, ‘You won.’ That’s really when I discovered I had some athletic ability.”
By eighth-grade, Harder was jumping beyond 18 feet. As a freshman at HHS in 1954, he qualified for the state track meet.
Over the next three seasons, he never jumped under 20 feet. In addition to winning state titles in 1955, 1956 and 1957, he won his share of gold medals at several large statewide meets, including the KU, Emporia State and Wichita State relays.
Versatile, Harder also competed successfully in the sprints, low hurdles, high jump and relays-almost every event except pole vault.
“That one scared me,” he said.
Harder set the existing school record at the Cottonwood Valley League meet, May 6, 1956-45 years ago this weekend.
“I didn’t know it was a record at the time,” Harder said. “And I don’t remember when I found out that it was.”
A junior at the time, Harder never surpassed that mark his senior year, but came close in his final meet. At the Class A state championships, he leaped 23-2-a half-inch short of the record, but almost two feet farther than the winning mark in the Class AA and Class B divisions.
Harder believes he should have gone further.
“I missed the state record by three inches,” he said. “I had my knees bent (when I landed). All I would have had to do was straighten my legs a little bit and I easily could have had the state record. That has bugged me all these years.”
After graduating from HHS, Harder attended Tabor College for three semesters, but said he doesn’t remember accomplishing much athletically during his brief college career.
“I really think I peaked in high school,” he said. “I know that’s kind of unusual, but that’s what I think.”
After school, Harder farmed for several years with his parents, Ed and Vera Harder, on the family farm near Aulne, then moved to Nebraska to farm in 1962.
In 1970, he moved to the Denver metro area, where he has lived ever since. He ran heavy earth-moving equipment until the mid-1980s, then moved into construction and remodeling.
Now age 62, Harder said he’s slowing down some and is making a career transition into real estate and property management.
He said he’s proud of his long jump record, but would have no remorse if it were broken.
“If it stays around, great,” Harder said. “But if someone would come around and break it, I would be the first to shake his hand.
“God gifted me, and if God gifted someone else just a little bit better, then, hey, more power to them,” he added. “I would have no jealousy. It would not upset me at all.
“I accomplished what I did to the best of my ability. If someone else can do that just a little bit better, then great. That’s where I’m coming from.”