Mentor, coach, voice of encouragement: Toms River’s Bob Petruski mourned

TOMS RIVER, NJ – If you’ve spent any time at a track race for the last 40+ years, there’s one voice you’ve always been able to hear, far above the din of athletes and spectators: the booming voice of Robert Petruski.

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

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

Petruski was a longtime cross country and track coach and director of the TEAM peer education program at Toms River Schools. According to his obituary on the Kedz Funeral Home website, he was 71 years old.

“[His]was the voice I didn’t know I needed until I heard it,” said Tracy Chencharik Taylor, who ran with Petruski as a coach at Toms River East 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 when they didn’t want to hear it. He said it in a few booming words: “Chencharik, get back on track, I don’t care how many times you throw up. Chencharik sucks it up. Chencharik open up. Chencharik, you better not give up,” she wrote.

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

On paper, Taylor was a longshot to get out of the section championships and was seeded 17th in the 400-meter dash.

“At the Jadwin Gym, the grandstands are high up, not down the track,” said Taylor. “You can’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 in the gym, I heard him.”

Taylor placed at the section championships and advanced to the Meet of Champions where she finished fifth in the 400.

Taylor transitioned to the coaching track, first joining Petruski as an assistant coach, then they switched roles, with Taylor as the head coach and Petruski as her assistant.

“He made it easy” to train with the man who was her mentor, Taylor said. “He gave you the opportunity to really just do your thing.” He offered advice, often along the lines of, “Are you sure you want to do this? … You might want to try that,” she said.

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

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

“He taught me how to push my limits, how to give when there’s nothing left to give, that your only goal is the finish line, even though you may feel like getting there,” April Wennlund said in a public Facebook post. “He yelled at me as I was on the ground and told me I was better than I even knew I was at the time. He taught me that perseverance and dedication are important in whatever you do, he taught me what hard work and pain mean, he definitely taught me resilience, he taught me a work ethic – the kind that goal setting works with results, he made me laugh, he certainly made me cry, i’m pretty sure he made me more proud of myself than i ever thought i could be could be. He did all this without the evening knowing he was doing it.

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

“As an impressionable teenager, he had a Pretty JOB that kept us all engaged,” Bradley Heaney wrote, “but I’m heartened by his commitment to teaching many of us how to give back in the most honest way.” From Freshman Leadership Weekend to the bus trips to New York to the non-smoking play we dreamed up every year, he stood up for us and protected us, but he made sure we all had a common thread , when we were growing up and going to college and living our own lives.”

“Her coaching lessons extended far beyond XC trails,” wrote Lori Viggiano Ditzel in a public Facebook post. “You shaped our lives. You taught us to be strong mentally and physically. … The legacy you are leaving in the running community, the lives of all the children you have impacted is remarkable.”

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

“I got to a meeting an hour early because I thought I was early, and Petruski has been there for 45 minutes, setting up and finding extra mics so he always has one for his announcements,” she said. Pointing at running athletes, he said, “Look, do you see all those girls in the finals? They were in my camp.”

The conversations always included thoughts on how to improve the sport and encouraged them to get more involved. Today, Taylor is President of the Shore Track Officials Association.

“Office this past season has been really difficult,” Taylor said, because the number of officers statewide has dropped significantly, from 900 to 600, much of that as a result of the pandemic.

Petruski had been a one-man recruitment machine, encouraging parents and former runners and coaches who had considered retiring to join the ranks of officials. Taylor said there is now a full cadet class and a second class is in the works for the fall.

Taylor said his involvement with the sport runs deep, from the days when Petruski matched meetings at the Peddie School with a group of schools and a race starter to the years he officiated at NJSIAA meetings.

It often meant he was separated from his 48-year-old wife Mary and son Michael for long periods of time, she said. However, according to his obituary, they understood his love for the sport.

Petruski was born in Perth Amboy and moved to Toms River at the age of 6. He graduated from Toms River High School in 1969 and was educated in cross country and track and received Shore Conference recognition. According to his obituary, he graduated from Shepherd University in 1973 with a degree in health and physical education.

He worked at Toms River schools from 1974 to 2011, spending most of his time coordinating the TEAM program, and 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 a civil servant after his retirement and was accompanied by Michael at officiating meetings.

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

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

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

Taylor said Petruski is “the guy who’s always there, 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 would be a different person today without him,” she said.

“Over the years there have been many people who have heard that voice and many, like me, who needed to hear it,” Taylor wrote on social media. “Now my phone won’t ring. There will be no knocking on the door. And Petruski’s voice will no longer boom over the loudspeaker. It’s the voice I thought I’d always hear.”

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


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