He left us all too suddenly. Last Thursday evening our local running group, the Gaston County Runners, had our weekly hill work session at Crowders Mountain. Each Thursday during the summer months some of us get together to tackle the steepest climb in our region, but on this rainy Thursday there was only Danny, 69-year-old Jim Owens, and me. We kidded around about the old guys being the only ones who showed up in this dreary weather then headed up the mountain. Danny mentioned that he had already run 11 miles earlier in the day and we weren’t surprised since he had been on a recent running binge, running more than 50 miles a week over the preceding several weeks in his training for an upcoming ultra marathon.
The three of us split up as we ran up the old gravel service road to the tower. I reached the top of the 1.75 mile climb first and after I got my breath I turned around and headed back down. I saw Jim, who was running with his dog Morgan, and asked him how far back Danny was. He wasn’t sure and I told him I’d go meet Danny and we’d meet Jim back at the top of mountain. I met Danny a quarter of a mile from the top and turned around to run with him. He said it seemed like a lot tougher climb since the last time he ran it, but that’s not unusual since it’s a challenge for all of us, especially the ones who are over 60 years old.
We reached the top and met up with Jim, rested and talked a few minutes, and headed back down. When we reached about the same point where I had met Danny, along came our friend Steve Helms (age 63), who had arrived late for the run and was just getting to that point. Without hesitation we all turned around and headed back up to the top with Steve, even though he said we should just go on down and he’d meet us a little later. That’s not the way we do things though, and we were more than happy to head back up.
When we finally reached the bottom of the mountain we decided to commemorate our old-guys-only run with a selfie. Little did we know it would be the last picture we’d take with Danny. On Sunday morning I had several messages from people who had already heard the news. Danny had passed away peacefully as he sat in front of his computer, no doubt typing an encouraging comment to someone or entering more miles into his running log.
The news spread quickly and was a shock to all who knew him. There was an outpouring of love like I’ve never seen before. It’s hard for me to imagine how he could have touched so many lives and still run all of those miles, but somehow he managed it.
Danny had retired as a trainer at Sam’s Club a couple years previously, but he was so valuable that they lured him back with an offer he couldn’t refuse, and of course he was such a people person that he never really wanted to retire anyway. And when work was over, if he wasn’t running he was out in the community either organizing, helping, or encouraging people. He organized the Hunter Huss High School reunions, volunteered at races, tirelessly supported Girls on the Run and served as a coach in the boys running program, Let Me Run. He was dubbed “The Mayor of South Gastonia” by Judge Jesse Caldwell, a lifelong friend.
Of all of his accomplishments though, it was his one-on-one interaction with everybody he came in contact with that made him a local legend. He had a rare ability to be your best friend right from the get-go. I watched him time after time welcoming new runners to our group, and not only would he welcome them, but he would run with them in training and in races, encouraging them along the way, and he’d continue to be their friend forever.
We went to the visitation for Danny and thought it would be good to get there 15 or 20 minutes before it started at 6:00 p.m. That was a slight miscalculation. The parking lot was already full and it took us an hour and a half to get to the front of the line. Hundreds (or was it thousands?) of folks whose lives were touched by Danny showed up to pay their respects, and people were still streaming in when we left.
But life goes on, the world keeps on turning, and the sun will rise again, although I’m not sure it’ll ever be quite as bright in the absence of everybody’s best buddy, Danny McBee, who magically turned strangers into friends and made us all feel better about ourselves.