Cantu’s track for success went through VC
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Inocente Cantu, who was a member of Victoria College’s national championship track and field teams in 1952 and 1953, competes at the USA Track and Field Masters Championships in 2014.

Inocente Cantu thought he had squandered his only opportunity to get out of the Wharton County cotton fields.

Cantu was a standout in track and field at El Campo High School in the 1950s and qualified for the state meet during his junior and senior years. But Cantu did not perform well in both of his trips to Austin and feared he had lost his only chance of receiving an athletic scholarship and attending college.

“I didn’t win anything at state,” said Cantu, who was one of 11 children. “I was either last or second to last. But about a week later after my last state meet, I received this card in the mail.”

The card was from Victoria College, formerly known as Victoria Junior College. It read: “I saw you run and I liked what I saw. Would you be interested in coming to Victoria Junior College? – Coach Ed Shinn.”

“That was my ticket,” Cantu said.

Cantu went on to lead VC to national junior college track and field championships in 1952 and 1953. Cantu was the high-point athlete at the 1952 national meet as he won the mile run in 4 minutes, 36.1 seconds and 2-mile run in 10:32.5.

The son of migrant worker, Cantu tells his story of how he was determined to make a better life for himself in his autobiography “Finding My Road,” which was released this month. Cantu and co-author Thomas Woltz will appear at a book signing at VC’s Museum of the Coastal Bend at noon Thursday, Jan. 26.

“It wasn’t so much I knew what I wanted as much as I knew what I didn’t want,” Cantu said of his motivation to leave the cotton fields. “I thought there had to be some way, some road that would lead me there. And, lo and behold, Coach Shinn provided that opportunity to find the road.”

Cantu recalled one of his first meetings with Shinn.

“He said, ‘We’re going to go to Austin to run against the University of Texas varsity team,’” Cantu said. “I said, ‘What? I just got out of the cotton fields and you want me to run against these boys?’ We did and I beat them all. I never got beat by a Longhorn and when I went there, I still never got beat by a Longhorn.”

Cantu transferred to the University of Texas at Austin where he was an All-America performer on the Longhorns’ cross country team. After serving a two-year stint in the U.S. Navy, Cantu acquired his bachelor’s degree and taught Spanish for 16 years before gaining his master’s degree at Prairie View A&M University and serving 23 years as an elementary school counselor.

Cantu’s running career was put on hold when he joined the Navy.

“Unfortunately, they put me on a ship and I couldn’t run on water, so that was the end of it,” Cantu said.

But Cantu resumed his passion for running when he arrived back in Texas. He ran his final marathon (26-mile race) when he was 41. Cantu, who will be 83 on Dec. 28, still runs competitively and in 2014 set the world record for the indoor mile for the 80-84 age group with a time of 6:42.10 in Boston.

Cantu, who was inducted into the National Hispanic Sports Hall of Fame in 2007, is training for the USA Track and Field Masters outdoor national meet to be held July 13-16 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He will compete in four events – the 5-kilometer run, 400 dash and 800 and 1,500 runs – in four days.

“I’m still going strong, but not as fast,” Cantu said. “I fully enjoy running as much as when I was doing it in the 1940s. I like the competition with myself. I don’t really compete against others as much as I do myself. I set a goal and I work toward that goal. My competition is my goal.”

El Campo High School honors Cantu each year with the “Cantu Mile” during its Ricebird Relays. Cantu, who lives in Richmond, has a son, Hiram, who attended Harvard and Yale and works as a finance director in New York City for Barclay Capital Bank; and a daughter, Sonia, who obtained her PhD in psychology from Boston College. He has been married to his wife, Josephine, for 52 years.

Cantu knows his road to success and ultimate success of his children would not have been possible had it not started at Victoria College.

“Absolutely not,” Cantu said. “Coach Shinn was the one who provided the opportunity, and while I was at the college, I had some really good teachers.”

“Finding My Road” took eight years to be compiled. Copies are available at thomaswoltz.com and Amazon.com and will be sold at the Museum of the Coastal Bend.

“The book follows Ino’s life through many ups and downs as roadblocks get thrown in his way,” Woltz said. “The reader is guided through these temporary hurdles by a combination of faith and perseverance.”

Cantu regularly stayed in touch with Shinn and often visited his former coach to rehash old memories.

“I would visit him often and we would talk about track and other things,” Cantu said. “He was very proud of what I and my children had accomplished. That really meant a lot to me.”

However, Cantu said a mystery still remains in the relationship between him and Shinn.

“Ed Shinn was an angel that just appeared out of nowhere for me,” Cantu said. “But I never did find out from him what he saw in me.”
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Inocente Cantu, center, is pictured in the Victoria College track and field team photo taken in 1952.
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Inocente Cantu, right, stands with teammate Ronald Koss and head coach Eddie Shinn, center, as they pose in front of the trophies the national champion Victoria College track and field team won in 1952.
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Copies of “Finding My Road” are available at thomaswoltz.com and Amazon.com.
Published: Wednesday, 14 December 2016
 

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