We’re only now learning of the death of Gardner Pond, one of the men who in 1974 started the nation’s first FrontRunners club, in San Francisco. He died April 8th at the age of 91.
From those early efforts by Pond, his then-lover, Jack Baker, and others, the original San Francisco FrontRunners chapter has grown into a worldwide organization of LGBTQ running and walking clubs. The Chicago chapter will mark its 37th year this September. There are now about 100 chapters from the U.S. to Australia, Chile, Japan, Sweden, and other countries around the globe.
The genesis of their group was actually an ad for a furniture refinishing class placed by Baker and Pond in a free local newspaper called “Lavender U,” according to the history recorded by Bud Budlong, and excerpted on the San Francisco Front Runners website.
It was 1973, the height of new age thinking. The idea was to create a university atmosphere, “to foster social and educational opportunities of special interest to gays,” where people could take classes for everything from art to yoga.
At the last minute, Pond and Baker changed their furniture class ad to one for an “introduction to jogging” class, Budlong wrote.
“As members of the San Francisco Dolphin, South End (SFDSE) Runners, one of the largest running clubs in the country, they modeled their ‘class’ on that club, which had a ‘scenic run’ every Sunday. They listed a two-month schedule of runs, beginning with a half-mile, adding a half-mile each week, and finishing with a five-mile run on ‘graduation’ week.”
The first run was held in Golden Gate Park on January 6, 1974. “It was just sort of a lark,” Pond told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2004, telling the paper he and Baker were just joggers looking for a social activity. “We were not runners. When we’d get the occasional person to show up who was a real runner, of course, they were thoroughly disappointed.”
“It was a gay thing,” Pond told the paper. “The boys were always cute.”
Over the years, Lavender U. grew in size to as many as 50 members, attracting as many as 30 participants at a time. But as Budlong writes, the names of those who joined were a closely-held secret, for fear of retribution if someone were to be outed as gay.
“There were few gay activities that were not centered around the bars. There were no gay hiking clubs, track, swimming, skiing, wrestly, bicycling or tennis clubs, bands, choruses, theater groups. For many, the Lavender U. Joggers was their first gay group they had joined. For more than a few, it was their first experience knowing and being around other gays. Although many exchanged their full names, many others revealed only first names - there was no membership list.”
“It was just somebody you could be open with, and not play that double life bullshit,” Pond told the Chronicle. “One youngster said he’d never dreamed he’d find another runner he could run with, because he was gay.”
By 1978, Lavender U. was defunct, and members voted to regroup and rebrand. The Front Runner, a same-sex romance novel by Patricia Nell Warren featuring a college track coach who falls in love with his star runner, served as the inspiration for the new organization. Today it is a non-profit operating on an annual budget of more than $20,000.
Pond leaves a husband, H.L. Todd, and many friends in San Francisco, Palm Springs and Cathedral City, Calif.
Among them was Pond’s former partner of 27 years, Ed Emond-Worline, who jogged with him and Baker in the 1970s.
“Gardner hired me into federal government as my first full-time job when I was 18 years old,” Emond-Worline told Outsports. At that time, Pond was 45. “Some called him a chicken-hawk in those days.” Emond-Worline is now 65.
Pond and Emond-Worline lived in the Upper Market neighborhood of San Francisco with another partner, Hector Caceres, who was in his 30s at that time.
“Those two were in a ten year relationship when I joined them,” Emond-Worline said. “We became a three-way or a ‘thruple,’ as they call them today, and we remained together, the three of us, for 25 years, and lived in the same house in San Francisco.
“It was wonderful. And for me, it was the best of both worlds. Hector was more of a social person who was very political. He was in every scene. Gardner was more ‘stay at home, read a book, build a room on the house.’ Which we did.”
In 2002, Pond followed Emond-Worline to Cathedral City and eventually settled in Palm Springs, Calif. Although they were no longer partners, their domestic partnership had lasted 33 years. Emond-Worline said they dissolved their civil partnership so that Pond could marry H.L. Todd, but they remained friends.
Todd told Outsports he and Pond wed on February 1, 2016.
“He was an avid collector,” said Emond-Worline. “There was a time in his life where he was everything Western. Jewelry, clothes, hats, boots, I mean, everything. And then he started collecting Japanese pottery called Sumida Ware.” Pond even co-wrote a book about it.
Pond hung up his jogging shoes about 30 years ago, Emond-Worline told Outsports, following a hip replacement. But from a treasure trove of photos he shared with us, it’s clear Pond remained active, collecting rocks, playing croquet and loving the outdoors. You can view his online album by clicking here.
In fact, Emond-Worline says Pond played tournament croquet both in San Francisco, at 19th and Wawona in Stern Grove, and in Rancho Mirage at the Mission Hills Country Club. “Croquet was one of the main reasons we moved to the desert,” Emond-Worline wrote. “Gard wanted the warmer (ha!) weather as he could play croquet every day if he wanted.”
Gardner Pond was 91.