Jim Arnold, Glenbard West coaching legend dies at 86

  • Jim Arnold

    Jim Arnold

Updated 5/25/2020 4:23 PM

Jim Arnold was more than a track coach, according to those that knew him. Along with fast starts and strong finishes, he taught his athletes how to clear the hurdles of life.

The longtime Glenbard West High School coach and Glen Ellyn resident, whose legacy is honored each year at the school's Jim Arnold Invitational, died Saturday at age 86 near St. Peters, Missouri, where he was visiting his three grandchildren.


His son, Marc Arnold, said his dad taught U.S. history at the Glen Ellyn school, but lived to coach.

"Dad taught high school so that he could coach," said Marc, who also ran under his father's tutelage. "He had the strongest passion to coach kids."

One of those kids was DuPage County Judge Ken Popejoy, who said Arnold in 1965 took a 4-foot-10-inch, 85-pound freshman and molded him into a state champion miler and cross-country runner. In 1969, he and Arnold traveled to Los Angeles for the national high school championships, where Popejoy finished second in the mile to the legendary distance runner Steve Prefontaine.

"This man was a second father to me," Popejoy said. "I spent four (or) five hours a day with Jim Arnold every day in my high school career. That's more quality time than I did spend with my mother or my father. I wouldn't be the person I am today without the life lessons Jim Arnold taught me."

Those lessons stuck with him beyond the track.

"He coached me in some of the hard realities of athletics," he said. "You don't always win. You don't always feel good. You don't always have a great day. If you want to do better, you got to work better. You got to work through adversity."

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Bill Fritz, who ran for Arnold in the 1970s, said the coach cultivated humility. After winning a state title his junior year over future Olympian Craig Virgin, Arnold told him "They're going to be chasing you next year, so we got some work to do," Fritz recalled.

Born in Battle Creek, Michigan, Arnold ran track at Battle Creek High School, where he was state cross-country and mile champion.

He also played saxophone in a band, which led to him meeting Shirley, his wife of 61 years. They had two children, Marc and Eric. Shirley died in 2014 at age 81.

Arnold started college at Michigan State University, where as a freshman he finished 9th in the Big 10 championships and 22nd in the NCAA championships, before transferring to Western Michigan University.

After coaching at Morton West High School, Arnold hit his stride at Glenbard West in the early 1960s, where he remained until his retirement in 1993.

His successor as cross-country coach, Hank Haake, remembered Arnold's intense rivalry with York High School's legendary coach Joe Newton, whose teams won 28 state titles.


"Their competitions were just incredible," he said.

Arnold's cross-country team was called "Arnie's Army," and his honors included cross country coach of the year in 1978 and track coach of the year in 1985. He also launched the school's girls track program and coached golf.

A memorial gathering will be Wednesday, May 27, from 4 to 8 p.m. at Leonard Memorial Funeral Home & Cremations, 565 Duane St., Glen Ellyn. A maximum a 10 people will be allowed in at a time. Funeral home officials will rotate visitors through as space opens up. For information, visit https://www.leonardmemorialhome.com/obituary/James-Arnold

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