Ruch School students and community members participate in a 1.3-kilometer race on the Perry Custance Community Fitness Trail Saturday near Ruch School. The trail was dedicated to Ruch School alum Perry Custance, who went on to become a record-setting runner at South Medford High School. Custance died in 2004 at age 22. - Julia Moore

Ruch School dedicates fitness trail to track star

Ruch School used the annual cross-country meet it hosts for South Medford High School runners Saturday to dedicate its 1.3-kilometer course to the late Perry Custance, an alumnus of both institutions.

Custance, a 2000 graduate of South Medford, was a standout distance runner whose track records in the 1,500 and 3,000 meters still stand. He died tragically in 2004 at the age of 22, shortly before his graduation from Oregon Institute of Technology.

Perry's mother, Wanda Custance, who was on hand for the ceremony, says Perry's experience at the K-8 Ruch School was important in developing the qualities he displayed as a champion athlete.

"This school and the community are forward-thinking, always doing the best to help the kids," says Custance. "Perry got to be a part of that "… he got a lot of encouragement to keep trying to do his best."

The dirt track used in yesterday's race is an ongoing project.

"When I was here with the PTO, we sold I don't know how many hot dogs so we could have this track," Custance says.

"The track has been built and maintained primarily by the students," says Scott Stemple, a seventh-grade teacher at Ruch School who also serves as cross-country and track coach.

"You haven't seen anything until you've seen seventh-graders pushing 70- and 80-pound rocks into a retaining wall," says Stemple. "They all take great pride in this school and themselves. The trail is emblematic of that."

Stemple never knew Perry Custance. As the plans for yesterday's trail dedication took shape, Stemple talked to Perry's friends and family to learn more about the former runner.

"It's always, 'what a great kid he was, how hard he worked,' " he says. "He was a champion runner, but what people remember is what a great guy he was."

For coach Stemple, the newly named "Perry Custance Community Fitness Trail" serves a purpose beyond competitive athletics. It's part of a school-wide fitness program.

"Fitness is the pillar that enables better health, better learning," says Stemple. "I have my seventh- and eighth-graders walk and run on the course before first-period math class."

Stemple rarely hears any snoring in his math class. Raising the heart rate first thing in the morning helps his students stay alert. And learn.

"Our little school has gone to the state middle-school math championship twice in the past few years," he adds.

Ruch School is taking the "healthy body, healthy mind" connection a step further.

"This school year, our school community — students, faculty, staff — are committed to walk and run a combined 50,000 miles on this course," says Stemple.

Ruch School Principal Julie Hill believes that fitness and strong community support are key ingredients in her school's success.

"We have a stellar health and wellness program. We all start our day doing exercises in the gymnasium," says Hill. "We have an art program here that is sought after; it's taught by professional artists in our community."

The results, Hill believes, are tangible.

"Our kids often exceed state standards in many subjects, our attendance rate is phenomenal compared to other public schools," she adds.

Even with its successes, Ruch School faces the specter of closure at the end of this school year, as it did in 2005.

"We're running on reserves this year, the school district is, so next year is going to be a very tough year," says Hill. "Our schools have to be financially sustainable, so you have to have an estimated student population of 300 to break even."

Ruch School has 191 students, up 25 from last year.

For Wanda Custance, Ruch School has a value to the community that goes beyond the cost-benefit as measured in the number of students.

"This school has been a great community center in so many ways," says Custance. "We've had many community meetings here, on other subjects — like logging. If we had an emergency, this would be a good place to come."

Custance is not about to give up on Ruch School, an effort she feels her son would have supported.

"When it comes to Perry and his philosophy," says Custance, "you would always try your best, go as far as you could. Even if you weren't number one, you were still way ahead of where you started."

Daniel Newberry is a writer living in the Applegate Valley. You can reach him at

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