George Kuhn

Lisa Taylor congratulates Festival of Races founder George Kuhn near the finish line during the 2012 National Cherry Festival’s Festival of Races.

TRAVERSE CITY — George Kuhn wasn’t just another runner, cyclist or skier.

Like Ed O’Keefe to the Traverse City wine industry or Ted Okerstrom to the skiing world, Kuhn forever is a pillar in the fitness community in northern Michigan.

Kuhn, who founded the Traverse City Track Club in 1962, passed away Jan. 3 following an unexpected downturn in health — preceding his wife Betty, who followed him into the afterlife Friday.

“He has influenced so many people with his great role modeling of a healthy lifestyle and was really a pioneer in the fitness world for espousing healthy lifestyle habits, with good nutrition and aerobic activity and staying healthy well beyond your youth,” Executive director of the TC Track Club Lisa Taylor said. “In terms of being the founding father of fitness in Traverse City, he deserves a statue for sure.” ‘

The fitness legend was responsible for bringing countless events and athletes to northern Michigan and spent his time volunteering across the area.

After starting the TCTC, Kuhn brought thousands of people into the fitness fold with his enthusiasm and passion for helping people stay healthy. Among the events he had a hand in starting were the Cherry Fest Festival of Races, the Turkey Trot and the Bayshore Marathon. Kuhn was known as a computer wiz, introducing Northwestern Michigan College to its first computer in 1963 and being among the first to use digital timing for a marathon when he implemented it for the Bayshore.

“George was an example of of unbridled enthusiasm for life,” said Mark Esper, former director of the Cherry Capital Cycling Club. “The man always had a smile on his face, was very engaging and was enthusiastic about life regardless of what was going on. He was positive to the core.”

The 88-year-old spent most of his life outside of fitness volunteering for various organizations and events. His reach wasn’t limited to just those who saw him running up Old Mission Peninsula or biking to United Way to help with their books. Kuhn seemed to be everywhere fitness was for the last 60 years.

“If there is an example for anybody for volunteerism, it’s George Kuhn,” former North American Vasa president Mike Haley said.

Kuhn was a former race director for the Vasa and volunteered alongside Haley for decades after he stepped away from the Vasa board. The fitness guru was also heavily involved with his faith, volunteering for Father Fred Foundation and TC St. Francis church on a regular basis.

“He‘s touched so many different lives through all of his volunteer activities,” Taylor said. “The TC Track Club is really appreciative of him as our founding father and we really credit him with getting us started on our road and our mission to help more people benefit from being active.”

The TCTC founder overcame a bout with West Nile Virus to stay one of the premier senior athletes in the area, running marathons and participating in other various races until 2013.

As he aged he found new ways to stay active, transitioning from running and skiing to cycling all the way until his passing. A hallmark for Kuhn was “Don’t stop doing,” according to Esper, and he constantly found new ways to stay active and get others in the community to tag along.

“Anybody who knew George couldn’t help but be touched by his enthusiasm for life that was contagious,” Esper said.

The community relied on Kuhn for decades as he became a fixture anywhere fitness was a priority. He was known for his reliability and contagious attitude, always smiling no matter what was going on in his life.

“If George did it, it was done right,” said George Lombard, former Vasa trail coordinator and long-time friend of Kuhn. “You would know there would be no mistakes, that’s just the kind of guy he was.”

Follow Jake on Twitter @JakeAtnip

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