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Pair of Aces
Wednesday, May 21, 2014 - by Jason Turner

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Even amongst the company of harness racing’s finest and best-known communicators, there has likely never been a more formidable duo than the one being inducted into the Communicator’s Hall of Fame this year. Between the pair of them, inductees Carol Cramer and John Pawlak have amassed more than 75 years of experience, worked with and befriended many of harness racing’s most indelible figures, and accrued an excess of memories and achievements, too numerous to count.

As Cramer and Pawlak take their place alongside our sport’s most accomplished journalists, publicists, broadcasters and writers in the Communicators Hall of Fame, Hoof Beats proudly presents this synopsis of their distinguished careers and many years of service.

Carol Cramer

Many things have been written and said about Carol Cramer, an outspoken advocate of harness racing and a lifelong lover of horses, but none have been more eloquent or endearing than the sentiment of her good friend Stan Bergstein, an industry icon whose opinion carried as much weight as any person in harness history.

USTA Photos
Carol Cramer is perhaps best known for compiling the USTA Stakes Guide for nearly 50 years.

“You are a woman without peer,” Bergstein wrote in an e-mail, just a few weeks before he died in 2010; “the peerless princess of song and legend and harness racing.”

Bergstein’s response was predicated by a request for information regarding stakes payments for a young filly pacer. As she had done countless times before--and has done many times since--Cramer referenced the now-ubiquitous USTA Stakes Guide, a book she created and has been curating for nearly 50 years.

“Stan and Delvin [Miller] decided they needed to have some kind of vehicle to know when races where and when payments were due,” said Cramer. “Stan said, ‘We’re going to do this and Carol, it’s up to you.’ So I started the Stakes Guide.”

The Stakes Guide was just the first of many important projects Cramer would take on during her tenure at the USTA. She was hired in 1965 after she moved home from Lexington, Ky., to take care of her ailing father.

“I came home in the spring of ’64,” Cramer said. “I knew I needed to work so I went to the USTA. I had a great knowledge of horses and Walter Koski hired me. The greatest joy of my life was being taken downstairs and being introduced to Jim Harrison. He was my first boss.” 

In addition to her work on the Stakes Guide, Cramer was soon transcribing taped interviews with such famed horsemen as Joe O’Brien and Stanley Dancer. Her familiarity with the industry and the vernacular made her the perfect woman for the job.

And when trainer-turned-author Jim Harrison set about compiling the industry’s definitive resource on horsemanship, 1965’s Care and Training of the Trotter and Pacer, Cramer again proved to be a more-than-capable accomplice.

Cramer with an equine friend in 1962, two years before she began working at the USTA.

“My family is all schoolteachers,” she said. “I had a great love to investigate, to dig, and to find out why this happens or that happens. Jim had me do more than 150 pedigrees, using a massive library, digging and connecting the dots.”

“She was a natural for the job,” said Hall of Fame photographer and former Hoof Beats managing editor, Ed Keys, who was also working for the USTA at the time. “She was familiar with the terminology of the sport and could spot errors in what was being written. She transcribed hours and hours of interviews that Jim did with various authors as he assembled the material for that epic book.”

Cramer and Keys were also instrumental in the production of the updated version, The New Care and Training of the Trotter and Pacer,” which was published in 1996.

Carol was always a hard worker and could be counted on to not only complete whatever projects she was given, but always did the job the right way,” Keys said. “At one point, one of the authors expressed his disappointment with the way his chapter was written. Carol stepped up and arranged for us to meet with him and she was able to go over the material and redo it in a way that was acceptable to him.”

Many of the jobs she did, Cramer was prepared for. A few of them she wasn’t. But she always answered the call, no matter how daunting or unfamiliar the task at hand was.

Cramer won the Harness Tracks of America Distinguished Service Award in 2007.

After her good friend and former boss Bergstein left, Don Evans was hired to take over publicity and the production of Hoof Beats. Evans and the USTA brought in a young woman from Indiana to take over the position of advertising director. She died unexpectedly in a tragic accident, which left the magazine short-handed.

“She was killed in a car accident on a Friday night,” said Cramer. “On Monday morning Don Evans asked me… told me, ‘You’re going to take over the advertising director job. You’ll do well.’ I did that job for five years along with my Stakes Guide duties.”

Cramer’s willingness to do any task and her unique qualifications have resulted in a career path unlike that of any of her Hall of Fame contemporaries. She has worn many hats, learned many things, and met many people along the way.

“I’ve just done a LOT of stuff,” she said.

In addition to her nearly 40 years of service at the USTA, Cramer has been a steward of the Grand Circuit for 27 years, and a member of the U.S. Harness Writers Association since the early 1970s. She formally retired from the USTA in 2007, but has continued her work with the Stakes Guide and has taken on the additional responsibility of assisting Phil Terry at the Little Brown Jug each year.

She also owns and trains horses, serves on the Bloomingburg, Ohio, Village Council, acts as an advisor for a local agricultural program and sits in as judge at multiple county fairs.

“I go to a lot of meetings,” she said.

She said what keeps her going is her love of harness racing.

“I love horses and I love being a part of the industry,” she said. “It’s just a thrill.

“You meet horsemen and you feel a sense of accomplishment working with people. I once flew into a snowstorm in Des Moines, Iowa. Who the hell wants to do that? No one, but I promised I’d go. We’re just normal people, but we work in a wonderful industry with the greatest animal in the world—the horse. An animal I grew up loving and continue to love.”

John Pawlak

Even before his stint as host of the USTA’s popular “Eye on Harness Racing” online video series, John Pawlak was a highly recognizable figure in the industry. There was no job too big or too small, and he made the most of his talents by exercising them at every opportunity. More prolific than the Kardashians, Pawlak was a requisite at myriad events, including the Little Brown Jug, the annual USTA board of directors meeting, district meetings and county fairs.

John Pawlak served as the USTA's director of publicity for more than 30 years.

As far back as high school, Pawlak had aspirations of being in broadcasting. A product of the Cleveland, Ohio, suburbs, he looked to the radio and its prominent DJs for inspiration.

“I was the guy who rode around in my car listening to the radio and mimicking the DJs,” he said. “In Cleveland, there were a lot of great DJs and a lot of great material to copy.

“I gravitated toward sports because I was always a sports fan. I did play-by-play for football, basketball and hockey. I even did a little harness racing.”

After graduating from Bowling Green University in northwest Ohio (he remains one of the school’s most ardent alumni), Pawlak went to work for the CBS affiliate station in Toledo. He worked as a sports anchor on the weekends and a sports reporter during the week, and kept a hand in racing by doing freelance gigs and voice-over work for Raceway Park.

A short time later, however, Pawlak went from having just a hand in harness racing to total immersion.

“In 1978, at the TV station, they fired about 15 of us,” he said. “They brought in a consultant and he told them they needed to let go of some people and bring in some younger faces. I was part of a Wednesday afternoon massacre.

“So I went up to Raceway Park. [Founder and owner] Sylvester [Jechura] had said to me, ‘If you’re ever looking for work, come see me.’ I was hired that same day. At first, I collected tickets and did some odd jobs. In March of ’79 I became the announcer.”

Additionally, Pawlak worked alongside a publicist named Ed Kiefer who taught him his earliest lessons about promotions, advertising and public relations. Kiefer was an excellent instructor and after about a year, Pawlak was doing his job. At the behest of his boss, he soon vacated the announcer’s booth so he could concentrate his efforts solely on publicity and public relations.

“That freed me up to do other projects,” Pawlak said. “It was a good move for me, working in other areas, and it was very good experience.

“I really enjoyed Raceway Park a great deal. It may have been minor-league racing, but for me it was major-league experience. Sometimes we got to see really good horses. Sometimes the Ohio Sire Stakes would come in and it was a good proving ground for drivers and trainers like Chuck Sylvester, who was there all the time.”

Pawlak interviews driver Brian Sears on Adios Day 2005 at The Meadows.

Pawlak’s next move was to Columbus, Ohio, and a position at the USTA.

“I wanted to work in racing at its highest levels,” he said. “And there was a little bit more money in it. The USTA offered me the opportunity to travel around and see the best horses and horsemen in the business. I couldn’t say no to that.

“One of the first things I was told by Dean [Hoffman] was, ‘I want you to go to Rockingham Park and follow Bruce Stearns for a few days and then I want you to go down to Lexington, Ky., and follow Tom White around for a few days. It’s the best way to learn.’ He was absolutely right.”

As Pawlak’s knowledge expanded, so did his role with the USTA. In addition to his duties as publicist, he headed up production of the annual Trotting and Pacing Guide and helped coordinate the USTA’s efforts in hosting the World Driving Championship, a biennial racing event that brings together some of the top drivers in the world.

“The ’95 Championship was probably one of my favorite memories,” Pawlak said. “I had never seen one before and [USTA Executive Vice President] Fred Noe said, ‘John, you’re in charge of this.’

“You literally get to live and travel with some of the finest drivers in the world for about two weeks. I still correspond with a number of people from overseas that I met through those experiences. I got to see great horses and great horsemen, and it was great fun.”

Pawlak was a regular attendee of USTA board of directors annual meetings, where he would read the proclamations.

In recent years, Pawlak has also been a major contributor, acting as host and head writer, for the USTA’s weekly Web series, “Eye on Harness Racing.” The popular program has accrued tens of thousands of views, and has won several awards. Pawlak credits much of the show’s success to its producer and multimedia coordinator Rich Johnston, and said it’s an invaluable promotional tool.

“Nowadays video production is within the capability of any racetrack or organization,” he said. “The cost of equipment has plummeted and editing is much easier now. It’s something the USTA does well. I think we’ve done some really good things to educate, entertain and inform horsemen and fans.”

Pawlak’s career has taken him all over the world, to perform jobs of every kind, but he’s always found time for his first love of being an announcer.

“It’s fun. It’s a skill you get to display. It’s a little like being a radio DJ,” he said. “You become an excellent student and observer of racing. You can project yourself into the game by being a horseplayer and you can do it by being an announcer. For many people [as an announcer] you’re part of the experience, and that’s always nice to know. You’re being informative and you’re helping them have a good time.”

Next month, the man who made a career out of promoting the accomplishments and achievements of others will, for a change, find himself in the spotlight, as Pawlak joins many of his friends, mentors and heroes in the Communicator’s Hall of Fame.

“This particular honor comes from a vote of your peers, and that is absolutely heart-stopping to me,” he said. “To look at the people who have already been inducted, it’s certainly a who’s-who of publicity and public relations.

To know I’m in there with them and I’m being thought of as their peer is amazing to me.”

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The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.