Nearly 1,300 teenagers are milling around Legends Stadium under the cleansing May 4 sun in various states of athletic readiness, stretching, talking, resting, bopping around to the music in their headphones or zeroing in on the eye of the tiger. Those whose names have been called are awaiting the bang of a starter pistol, or eyeing their takeoff point, or visualizing the javelin in their hand taking flight, whistling through the breezeless air and gliding to the grassy earth.
Some of these teenagers will win the first and only medal of their high school track and field career today, while others will come back here in less than three weeks and etch their names in history at the state meet. This is the Archie Roe Invitational, a decades-old Kalispell tradition, and one of the rare high school sporting events that goes out of its way to honor runners, throwers and jumpers who don’t normally find their names in lights.
It’s almost fitting, then, that the event’s namesake, Archibald Dean Roe, was a passionate enough supporter of Flathead High School that the people in charge put his name on this meet 42 years ago, and an ungifted enough athlete that the closest he came to varsity competition in high school was as a team manager.
The Archie Roe is actually six track meets in one, a girls and boys varsity, junior varsity and freshman competition that draws from schools of every size across the state. In recent years, only Flathead, Glacier and Missoula Hellgate have been invited to the meet from the state’s largest classification (AA), and entrants in 2019 included those from far-away small towns like Choteau, Glasgow, Shelby and Troy.
Dan Hodge was in his second year as the boys track and field coach at Flathead when the Kalispell Invitational was renamed the Archie Roe, and while the event is not as popular or well-attended as it once was, in part due to the proliferation of synthetic tracks around the state, what continues to make Archie Roe unique is its inclusiveness. Every athlete at every invited school can participate, and popular events have a seemingly endless stream of heats to accommodate the large field. The daylong meet takes an army of more than 100 volunteers, along with the help of other schools who supply event officials for the sub-varsity competitions. It all begs the question of why, in the middle of an already busy spring sports season and with no shortage of alternatives available, Kalispell continues to run six track meets on the same day, year after year after year.
“Every one of my kids gets to be in that track meet,” Hodge says. “And the freshmen go against freshmen, the younger kids go against younger kids, and the varsity kids, it’s normal for them. But it’s those young kids — you have to have meets for them … and you want them to have some success, because success breeds success.”
One of the volunteers who shows up just about every year at the Archie Roe stands at the finish line of the track events, operating his dad’s old silver stopwatch just in case the digital timing system fails. It’s more of a ceremonial position at this point, he admits, but he is always welcome and warmly received here, standing on the same spot where his father stood before he died in 1981.
Dan Roe is 66 years old now, and a long way from his days as a three-sport athlete for the Braves, just like his older brother, Richard. They grew up with their late sister, Leslie, and mother, Frances, in a large house on Kalispell’s west side. Dan’s grandparents, Joseph and Gratia, homesteaded in Kalispell and both worked for the Conrad family, Gratia as a seamstress and Joseph in the stables.
Archie Roe, his son says, was “130 pounds soaking wet” in high school, so he fueled his sports passion as a student manager and as a statistician and timekeeper at any event that would have him. When he graduated from FHS in 1933, Roe began working at a local clothing store, Robbin and Robbin, and continued to help out with football, basketball and track competitions.
Roe served in the South Pacific during World War II, and shortly after he returned from service in the early 1940s, he and Jack Taylor opened their own clothing store on Main Street in Kalispell, Taylor and Roe. A hard-working and creative businessman, Roe aggressively promoted the store, and eventually he and Taylor added two more partners and expanded the business to include army surplus, athletic gear and a small engraving operation. The quartet would move their shop to the Western Outdoor building before selling the business to Joe Fine and Gordon Pirrie in 1972, although Roe would keep the engraving business and sell trophies and medals to schools throughout Montana out of a shop in his house until his passing.
Along the way, even as his business and family grew, Roe poured himself into the Kalispell community. He was a member of The Shriners, an advocate for veterans organizations, and a passionate booster of athletics at Montana State University, the University of Montana and, of course, Flathead High.
“He was the epitome of a sports booster,” Dan Roe said of his father. “He just had a love of the game.”
Archie Roe picked up where he left off when he went to war as a timer and scorekeeper at Braves athletic events, and his home and store became regular gathering places for Flathead coaches and boosters. His enthusiasm even extended to Flathead Valley Community College, and when the school briefly had a men’s basketball program in the early 1970s, a number of out-of-state players stayed with the Roe family during the season.
“I saw dad at the high school or at the football game or coach’s office or whatever more than I saw him at home,” Dan said. “I spent a lot more time with him at the school because he was friends with every coach, knew them all.”
When conversations about Flathead sports included something the school needed, or wanted, for its student-athletes, Archie Roe was usually right in the middle of it. When the school replaced its dirt track and built one of Montana’s first synthetic surfaces in the mid-1970s, Roe helped spearhead the team that got it done, and when Braves athletes were looking for the latest gear they would find it at Taylor and Roe.
Then on April 4, 1977, after years of volunteering his time and services to his alma mater, the school’s official booster group, the F Club, prepared a surprise. They called a meeting and presented a plaque, declaring that “in honor and appreciation of outstanding and unselfish service to high school athletics” the school’s annual meet would be renamed the Archie Roe Invitational Track Meet.
“It really startled me, I was kind of in awe,” Roe told the Daily Inter Lake in 1977. “I supposed you would say I was thrilled but really didn’t know how to express it.”
Les Cabot, the Flathead High athletic director at the time, said in the same 1977 story that “whenever anything needed to be done, Archie has been there to help.”
“He took it as a great honor and I think it really touched him pretty deep,” Dan Roe said last week. “To have this named after him when he was still alive, it’s pretty special. The dynamics of Kalispell have changed so much through the years, but there was a core group of people that truly looked up to dad as the stellar sports enthusiast that he was.”
The meet itself, initially called the Kalispell Invitational, has maintained much of its character in no small part because of the people connected to it. Hodge is still the Flathead boys track and field coach, now with seven state championships to his name, and one of his former pupils, Derek Schulz, has been bringing the teams he coaches — both the boys and girls at Whitefish High School — to the Archie Roe every year. Another Flathead alum and a former Archie Roe champion, Charlie Dotson, now leads the Bravettes track and field team, and appreciates the opportunity the meet presents for those just getting started in the sport.
“The best part is it’s tough for (freshman and junior varsity) kids to understand how well they’re doing,” Dotson said. “Now, they get to compete against people that are similar to them and see truly how well they’re doing.”
“They like firsts, too,” Hodge said. “You want your kids to have some success. If you have a freshman kid that’s a good miler, and he’s always going against a junior or a sophomore, he’s always going to get beat. He’s got to have some success.”
This year’s Archie Roe was heavy on success. Hordes of volunteers worked in harmony to shuttle the 1,200-plus competitors through more than 100 event competitions, winners celebrated victories while their teammates cheered them on, and awe-inspiring feats of speed and strength ruled the day at the varsity level.
All the while, at the same time and on the same track and in front of the same teammates, a precocious freshman experienced the sensation of leading the pack around a turn, a newcomer to sports heard her name over the loudspeaker for the first time in her life, and the busy stadium cheered individual success in whatever form it took, whether a new meet record or a modest personal best. And they did it all in the name of a man whose love of competition drove a life of generosity to sports.
It all happened at the Archie Roe.