The UTEP track and field office is in rather a dark place … tucked up under the bleachers of Kidd Field, nestled snugly against old Holliday Hall.
But there is almost always a bright spot in that dark, tucked away place, a ray of sunshine each day, a spot of warmth for both athletes and coaches.
Katie Jensen, who just celebrated her 94th birthday on Valentine’s Day, embraces each day of this journey we call life, just gives every day a hug and a smile. And she brings that sunshine to the track and field office each day, working as the secretary.
“I’ve been here 27 years,” she said in her high-pitched, friendly voice. “But the first two years I was a volunteer, so I don’t really count those. I call it 25 years. I went to work at State National Bank, now Wells Fargo, in July, 1950. In December, 1985, they were down-sizing and they asked some of us to retire. So I did.”
But you cannot really retire sunshine, can you?
Miss Katie, as many of the athletes call her, has always been active, always been a sports fan … always been a fan of life.
“I still drive everywhere,” she said with her ever-present smile. “People ask me if I drive on the freeway and I tell them it’s a road and it drives the same as any other road. I still do my own yard work, still mow my grass. I try to walk a mile each day, but if it gets too dark I just can’t.”
There are not many “can’ts” in her life. She loves the outdoors. She knits. She crochets. She watches sports on television. And she has one other special passion.
“I’ve had UTEP basketball season tickets since 1961,” she said. “I came in with Coach (Haskins). Oh, it’s been so exciting, so wonderful. I sit in Section I, Row 8 … just far enough back so they can’t hear me. I’m yelling ‘call time out’ or ‘take him out and settle him down.’ It’s really exciting.”
When Texas Western won the 1966 NCAA championship, Jensen said she “jumped all over the house. Then I ran outside calling to everyone ‘we won, we won,’ even though no one was out there.”
Jensen is everyone’s grandmother, everyone’s favorite aunt.
“She is really so nice,” said UTEP’s star hurdler, Janice Jackson, who has come to El Paso from Jamaica. “We all always come in just to talk to her. She’s always a bright spot whenever you are feeling down. She is always here with a smile. Especially on holidays … Christmas … Halloween. And she works so hard. Every time I come in, she is organizing stuff for a meet, getting ready for the next week. Katie is amazing.”
Mickael Hanany, an NCAA champion and eight-time All-American, came here from France and has stayed, finishing his master’s degree and training here while competing professionally in Europe.
“It’s amazing,” he said with a smile, shaking his head. “She is the sunshine of the track program. She always brings the good mood around. She brings cookies all the time. She brings happiness all the time. She is the backbone of the track program. She will still walk up and down that hill, taking things to the Brumbelow Building. She still feels young, she still looks young. She is amazing.”
Katie Jensen is amazing and she has lived an amazing life … embracing every moment of it.
She lived through the tough times of the Depression, the tense times of World War II.
“I was born in El Paso, at the Masonic Hospital,” she said. “I graduated from Austin High School in 1937. Times were pretty tough, so I just went to business school. My father was a long time engineer for Southern Pacific. They downsized and he lost his job and we moved to Monahans for a while. We had a windmill there. Sometimes, when there was no wind, my mother would climb up the windmill and turn it so we could get water.”
Jensen remembers “a wonderful” cattle roundup on the Ragsdale Ranch and she remembers her father giving her 25 cents to go to the movies … 10 cents to get in. They are all wonderful memories for Miss Katie.
But, more than anything, this is a love story. Katherine Hendrick Jensen has had nearly a one century love affair with life and a 74-year love affair with her late husband Ronnie.
“We were married in 1940,” she said. “He was a wonderful man and we had the best times. He was just such a wonderful person. One time he came home from work and I had had a bad day at work. I was a little short with him when I answered and he said ‘what do you want me to do … slam the door.’ I looked at him and we both started laughing and we just laughed and laughed. I never, never took another thing home from work again.
“We used to hunt quite a bit,” she said. “I shot a deer once and I got so excited. Everything stopped on Saturdays and we would watch baseball on TV. Saturdays at 12 o’clock. I would make hot dogs. We would bet a dollar on the games and Ronnie would usually just take the team I didn’t take. In the end, he would usually give me my dollar back anyway, so I always wound up with two dollars. Just so many little things that made him so precious. He passed away in 1980 … but he is still with me.”
Pausing, smiling, she said, “A couple of years ago I was driving and I heard a voice say ‘you are almost out of gas.’ I said no, I just got gas. But I looked down and it was almost on empty. There was a Phillips station on the next block, open on Christmas Eve. So he’s still looking after me. And I still love him just as much as the day we were married.”
Miss Katie and Ronnie had two daughters, Carolyn and Patricia. They have seven grandchildren and nine great grandchildren.
And, of course, she has her UTEP track and field family.
“I love sports, all sports, but track has always been my first love,” she said. “I still hear from a lot of the athletes … especially at Christmas. Track athletes are just one of the nicest bunch of people; always so considerate. I just love all of them and I miss them when they move on.”
Mika Laaksonen is UTEP’s head coach and is a former Miner track and field athlete.
“I’ve known Katie since 1992,” Laaksonen said. “First as a student athlete, then as an assistant coach and now as the head coach. First of all, she’s such a very friendly person. We couldn’t have a better person at that front desk from a student-athlete’s perspective. She’s wonderful. She just always has the right approach. She’s very supportive. When an athlete does well, she knows it and she congratulates them. But, most importantly, she treats you as a person, not as an athlete. And that is exactly what our kids need.”
Paul Ereng, associate head coach and cross country coach, smiled and said, “I came in 10 years ago. I’m 10 pounds heavier. I’m starting to get some gray hair. But Katie … she still looks the same. She reminds me of a lot of things I would forget. She puts you on a schedule. She helps run this program.
“She’s been so wonderful with our kids,” said Ereng, himself a 1988 Olympic gold medalist at 800-meters. “She’s our backbone. She’s our foundation of the program.”
Jensen bustles in each morning, starts the coffee, opens the place … bringing that sunshine with her. She works happily away, surrounded by hundreds of All-American certificates … so many of them with the name of her friends on them. She is, in fact, not surrounded by simple certificates. She is surrounded by memories. So many memories … so many beautiful memories.
Smiling, almost giggling a bit, she said, “Every day is just great with me.”
And each day Miss Katie brings her sunshine into that dark place that is the UTEP track and field office … sunshine on even the darkest and cloudiest of days … sunshine and smiles for her family of UTEP athletes.
Bill Knight may be reached at 546-6171.
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