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Mentor, Coach, Motivating Voice: Toms River’s Bob Petruski Mourned

TOMS RIVER, NJ — If you spent any time at a track meet in the last 40-plus years, there was one voice you could always hear, well above the din of the athletes and the spectators: the booming voice of Robert Petruski.

He was a force to be reckoned with, and his voice pushed, prodded, urged people to get involved, to give their best… to do more than they thought possible.

That voice — and the man behind it — is what Petruski’s former athletes and students have been remembering this week, as they mourn the former Toms River educator who died Friday at his home in Waretown.

Petruski was the longtime cross country and track and field coach and head of the Toms River Schools’ TEAM peer education program. He was 71, according to his obituary on the Kedz Funeral Home website.

“(His) was the voice I didn’t know I needed until I heard it,” said Tracy Chencharik Taylor, who ran a track at Toms River East with Petruski as her coach in the early 1990s. In a tribute to her former coach and friend that Taylor posted on Twitter and Facebook, she said Petruski always pushed, always encouraged, and told them what they needed to hear — even if it wasn’t want they wanted to hear. He’d say it with a few booming words: “Chencharik get back on the track, I don’t care how many times you puke. Chencharik suck it up. Chencharik open it up. Chencharik you better not give up,” she wrote .

“When I was in high school, my junior year was the first year I really came into my own as a runner,” Taylor said Tuesday by phone. “I placed in the counties (the Ocean County Championships) and placed in Shore Conference. Going into state sections in Princeton, he said to me, ‘This isn’t the end. Go there, you do your best and we’re coming back next week.’ “

On paper, Taylor was a longshot to advance from the sectional championships, seeded 17th in the 400-meter race.

“In Jadwin Gym, the bleachers are up high, not down by the track,” Taylor said. “You ca n’t really hear anything, but somehow I heard him. Whether it was the words he said to me 10 minutes before the race or his voice from him in the gym, I heard him.”

Taylor placed at the sectional championships, advancing to the Meet of Champions, where she finished fifth in the 400.

Taylor went on to coach track, first joining Petruski as his assistant coach, then they switched roles, with Taylor as head coach and Petruski as her assistant.

“He made it easy” to coach with the man who was her mentor, Taylor said. “I gave you the opportunity to really just do your thing.” He would offer advice, often in the vein of, “Are you sure you want to do that? … Maybe you want to try this,” she said.

“My first memory of him was at the Team Run for Life in the first grade and he terrified me with his intense voice,” Krissa Louise wrote in a public Facebook post. “That voice, though, became one that cheered me on, made me laugh, and checked in on me throughout the last 25 years.”

” ‘Petrusk’ ” told it like it is,” she wrote. “His blunt honesty is something that I may not have *always* appreciated but damn do I appreciate it as an adult. He told you the truth, even if it was tough to hear.”

“He taught me how to push my limits, how to give when there wasn’t anything left to give, how your only goal was the finish line despite how you might feel getting there,” April Wennlund said in a public Facebook post. “He yelled at me when I was down on myself and told me I was better than I even knew I was at the time, he taught me that perseverance and dedication were important in anything you did, he taught me what hard work and pain meant , he certainly taught me resilience, he instilled a work ethic in me — the kind that goal setting gets results with work type of thing, he made me laugh, he certainly made me cry, I’m pretty sure he made me prouder of myself than I ever knew I could be.

Several former athletes and students from the TEAM program remembered Petruski as a second father to them.

“As impressionable teens he had QUITE A JOB keeping us all in line,” Bradley Heaney wrote, “but I am emboldened by his commitment to teaching many of us how to give back in the most genuine of ways. From Freshman Leadership weekend to bus trips to New York, to the nonsmoking play we made up every year, he championed and protected us, but made sure we all had a common thread as we grew and went off to college and lives of our own.”

“Your coaching lessons reached far beyond the XC trails,” Lori Viggiano Ditzel wrote in a public Facebook post. “You shaped our lives. You taught us to be strong mentally and physically. … The legacy you leave behind in the running community, all the kids’ lives you influenced is remarkable.”

Taylor said Petruski’s passion for coaching and for improving the sport for kids drove him not only as a coach but also as an official track, and with his encouragement Taylor followed Petruski into the officiating ranks. His lessons from him continued there, she said.

“I would get to a meet an hour before it started, thinking I’m early, and Petruski’s been there for 45 minutes, setting up, finding extra microphones so he could always have one to make his announcements,” she said. He would point out athletes running and say, “Look, you see all those girls in the finals? They were in my camp.”

The conversations consistently included thoughts to improve the sport, encouraging her to get more involved. Today, Taylor is the president of the Shore Track Officials Association.

“This past season officiating has been really hard,” Taylor said, because statewide the number of officials has failed substantially, from 900 officials to 600, with a lot of that due to the pandemic.

Petruski had been a one-man recruiting machine, encouraging parents and former runners and coaches who were considering stepping away to join the officiating ranks. Taylor said there is a full cadet class now and a second class in the works for the fall.

Taylor said his commitment to the sport was deep, from the days of Petruski pulling together meets at Peddie School with a group of schools and a race starter, to the years officiating at NJSIAA meets.

It often meant he was away from his wife of 48 years, Mary, and his son, Michael, for long stretches, she said. They understood his love of him for the sport, however, according to his obituary of her.

Petruski was born in Perth Amboy and moved to Toms River when he was 6. He was a 1969 graduate of Toms River High School and lettered in cross country and track, as well as earning Shore Conference recognition. He was a 1973 graduate of Shepherd University with a degree in health and physical education, according to his obituary.

He worked in the Toms River schools from 1974 through 2011, spending most of his years coordinating the TEAM program, and he coached girls cross country and track teams at Toms River High School East for more than 30 years. His 1982 Lady Raiders were inducted into the Toms River Athletic Hall of Fame in 2012, and Petruski himself was inducted in 2014. Petruski became an official after his retirement, and was joined by Michael in officiating meets.

“He continued his passion for the sport by creating a running camp for children where he encouraged and inspired them to develop a love for the sport,” his obituary said.

Petruski was also selected to be inducted into the Shore Coaches Hall of Fame this year.

“It was an honor of which he was extremely proud,” his family said.

Taylor said Petruski was “that guy who’s always present, even when he’s not.”

“He always had something to say. It wasn’t always what you wanted to hear, but it was what you needed to hear. I’d be a different person today without him,” she said.

“There were a lot of people over the years that heard that voice, and many, like me, who needed to hear it,” Taylor wrote on social media. “Now, my phone isn’t going to ring. There will be no knock at the door. And, Petruski’s voice will no longer be heard booming over the loud speaker. It’s the voice I thought I would always hear.”

“There are some voices that you always hear. They are loud. They strong. They are ever present. Robert Petruski was one of those voices in my head,” Taylor said.

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