Norbert W. Sander Jr., MD, Class of 1960
Winner, New York City Marathon
Founder, Armory Foundation, New York
Long-time physician to Clamdiggers and Musselsuckers alike — local lingo for native City Islanders and mainland-born transplants respectively — Norbert Sander was born in Yonkers, New York to Gertrude Carroll Sander, a purchasing agent, and Norbert Sander Sr., a pilot. When City Island, “The Seaport of the Bronx,” was a seaplane base, the elder Norbert would often take his family on flights over the Long Island Sound. It was then that young Norb would fall in love with the nautical community where he would one day open his practice.
Growing up with a sister, Carroll, and a brother, John, Norbert attended Sacred Heart Grammar School in the Capuchin Franciscan parish in Yonkers where fellow Hall of Honor member Rev. Peter McCall would later serve.
Sander arrived at Rose Hill in 1956, and early on during his Hughes Hall years, he decided that the track would be his main athletic interest. While at the Prep, Norb, a Greek Honors student, was a member of the historic 1958 and 1959 cross-country teams that took City Championships — the only Prep runners to have done so at the time of Sander’s 2009 Hall of Honor induction.
Norbert stayed on at Fordham for his undergraduate career. He would continue to run for the University team, graduating in 1964. After his time at Rose Hill, the French-speaking Sander began his medical training at the Université de Lausanne in Switzerland, returning to the States to graduate from Albert Einstein Medical School in 1971.
An internist specializing in family medicine, Dr. Sander hung up his shingle on City Island where would maintain a practice for many years, as well as raise the first two of his four daughters. Running would also continue to be a major part of his life, highlighted by his 1974 New York City Marathon victory, back in the days when the event was run in Central Park. Norbert Sander was the first — and at the time of his passing, only — New Yorker to have ever won this race.
In 1992, Sander stood on a debris-strewn balcony in the Fort Washington Armory at 168th Street in New York City with an executive from an athletic company. At that time, there were about 2,000 homeless men housed in the dilapidated facility. Conditions were unsanitary; every window was broken.
The Fort Washington Armory, with its huge vaulted ceiling and 96,000 square feet of wooden floor, had been New York City’s premier arena for indoor track from about 1910 to the mid-1980s. Time and neglect, however, had taken their toll.
As Sander would note in a 1995 Sports Illustrated article: “It had been a shrine, a holy place. Then the homeless were moved in, and it became the heart of darkness.” As for the men who were housed there, many of them mentally ill, the Armory was no sanctuary. It had become, as described in the SI article, a place of violence and despair — in the words of the residents themselves, “a prison without bars.”
Norbert had extraordinary memories of competing on the Armory’s original wooden track during his days as a runner with the Prep and the college. Standing on that balcony in 1992, he laid out his dream.
First, he wanted the city to move the homeless inhabitants to better quarters, with facilities and staffs to address their individual needs. The good doctor could not abide seeing his fellow New Yorkers reduced to an existence in squalor. A State Appellate Court judge was obviously in agreement with Sander’s sentiments — that same year, the court would rule that housing homeless people in situations like that at the Armory was inhumane.
After the relocation of the homeless men to better situations, Norb’s plan was to restore the track facility to its former premier status. He had an extra motivation in the memory of his Prep coach, fellow Hall of Honor member Joe Fox, Class of 1929, who had passed away in 1990. As Sander would recall during an interview, the Armory had meant everything to Coach Fox, “and he went out feeling so bad that it had collapsed over the years. I just couldn't go on thinking, ‘Someone will do it for us.’ It had to be me."
The challenges were enormous. Reclocating the inhabitants was a three-year endeavor. Raising money was the other major impediment. Sander tirelessly lobbied major corporations in the City, as well as athletic companies associated with track equipment. They began to see his vision — and the funds began to flow. Other organizations also began to set their sights on the Armory once they saw that some progress was taking place. Sander persevered.
His vision was that high school athletes would have a premier athletic facility to compete, hopefully leading to a continued interest in track and field sports. His efforts would raise more than $25 million to refurbish the building from top to bottom. In addition to its restored track, the renovated Armory would include a learning center and community center where local youth could work towards high school equivalency tests or hone valuable academic skills.
During the first decade of the 2000s, the Armory would become the premier indoor track and field facility in America, seeing more than 400,000 visitors a year, and the home of the National Track & Field Hall of Fame. Its after-school program would grow to be one of the largest in New York City.
A trackman and a Fordham man through and through, Sander served as president and CEO of the Armory Foundation and on the board of directors of the New York Road Runners Club. He was the Prep’s Commencement Speaker in 2005, and was generous with his time and talent at the Univeristy as well. In the words of Frank McLaughlin, Class of 1965 and longtime executive director of athletics at Fordham University, Norb was “very loyal to the Prep, the university, and to the sport of track. He’s always looking to help people.”
Dr. Norbert W. Sander Jr. passed away on March 17, 2017, leaving behind his four daughters, Evan, Jessica, Emma and Phoebe, and his wife, Bridget Bennett Sander, RN.