It’s March 14, pi day…what’s the story behind this “pie?”

Artificial pie used in "Speed City" exhibit
Artificial pie used in “Speed City” exhibit (History San Jose Collection)

In late 2006, History San Jose organized the exhibit “Speed City : From Civil Rights to Black Power,” an in-depth examination of American sport in an era that spanned the aftermath of World War II through America’s tumultuous involvement in Vietnam. The exhibition focused on San Jose State College’s athletic program, from which many coaches and student athletes became globally recognized figures as the Civil Rights and Black Power movements reshaped American society. San Jose State College – now known as San Jose State University – was selected as the focus of the exhibit as several Spartans became principal figures during this period of dramatic social transformation. This imitation cherry pie, part of the exhibit, represented the pies baked by the wives of Coach Bud Winter and his assistant Bert Bonanno.

Lloyd “Bud” Winter arrived in San Jose to coach track and field in 1940, but left to serve in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Upon his return after the war, he resumed his coaching position with assistant Bert Bonanno. Though Winter had coached some fairly successful teams through the 1940s and early 1950s, it was not until the mid ’50s that a young Black sprinter would bring Winter’s genius to the forefront.

Ray Norton, then a high school senior, tells the story of Winter watching him run on the track along with a couple of friends days before the national outdoor track and field championships at the University of California. Winter questioned the young sprinter, and told him that if he were to come to San Jose State, he would make him “the World’s Fastest Human.”

Within two years of his arrival in San Jose, Norton, who competed in the 1956 Olympic trials as an Oakland City College freshman, literally became the World’s No. 1-ranked sprinter. Teaching the same relaxation methods he had taught fighter pilots during the Second World War, Winter trained Norton to relax while sprinting. Norton later would set or break world records in the 100 and 200 meters, and the 100 and 220 yards six times during the 1958, ’59 and ’60 outdoor seasons.

With the coming of Norton and California State Junior College champion sprinter Robert Poynter in 1956 and ’58, respectively, San Jose would become somewhat of a magnet for athletes from as far afield as Brazil (Jose Azevado), Jamaica (Dennis Johnson), Nigeria (Jimmy Ogmabemi), and Venezuela (Lloyd Murad), earning the nickname “Speed City.”

But not all was as glorious in San Jose as songstress Dionne Warwick sang in her hit “Do you know the way to San Jose? (“There’ll be a place where I can stay . . .”). Although these world-class athletes were “on scholarship,” they sometimes went hungry. “On weekends when we didn’t have anything to eat, we would just stay in the house,” said Poynter, who notes how Coach Winter would divide six scholarships amongst forty athletes. “Sometimes we would eat walnuts off the tree in the backyard and drink sugar water, or if Chuck Alexander would hash (wait tables) at a fraternity or sorority house, he would bring home chicken for us.”

At one point, Norton, whom other athletes teased about being “Bud’s favorite,” approached Winter to discuss his famished teammates. Soon, Winter had set up a “reward system” in which everyone, from Norton, the World’s Fastest Human, to the slowest person on the team would be fed. “It was interesting because he knew the athletes who were hungry,” Norton said. “But Bud would do it so that he wouldn’t embarrass anyone.” Winter’s wife, Helen Winter, and his assistant’s wife, Betty Bonanno, began to bake cakes and pies for the athletes. Winter also was able to get restaurants including Original Joe’s – still located at 301 South First Street in downtown San Jose – to feed the athletes in the afternoon or in the evening. “If you did well in practice and Bud liked it,” Norton said, “Bud would give you a little chip and you could go over there and get a milkshake and a hamburger.”

Despite the fact that Norton and Poynter, amongst others, brought worldwide recognition to the City of San Jose, they still were forced to live in segregated housing along with a dozen or so other Black males who attended SJSC, and called themselves the Good Brothers. “We had to help each other in order to survive, so that’s what we did,’ Poynter said. “All of us were determined to succeed because we knew we couldn’t just go back home.”

(Excerpted from “Speed City: From Civil Rights to Black Power” by Urla Hill, 2005)