Over the past few decades, seeing this retired Cell and Systems Biology professor running on the Hart House track has become an inspiring and expected tradition. If he misses a week, everyone asks after him.

We caught up with him (not literally, he’s far too fast) for an interview. He talks about running barefoot (before it was a fad), painting, and why you should join the Hart House running group, which is still going strong 47 years after he started it.

Every Friday at approximately 1 pm, an unlikely group of about a dozen people converges on the top floor of the Hart House Fitness Centre. They are young and old. Male and female. Students and graduates. University staff and professors. In fact, the group varies so much that it’s hard at first to tell what unites them.

Little by little, the group gathers around a trim man with a neat white beard. An ever-present smile twitches his lips. He jokes around. He looks perfectly at ease.

Then, the man starts running, and the entire group falls in. Just as it has since 1970.

The man’s name is Sherwin Desser, and this is his story.

I was born in Winnipeg. I did both my undergrad and postgrad at Manitoba, and I came here for my Ph.D. And when I finished that, I did some postdoctoral work abroad.

In 1969, a group of guys who really didn’t know each other at all—one was a dentist, the other a lawyer, one was a professor, and a couple of other guys who worked for Hydro—ran on the Hart House track. They were very competitive. When I started running here, I could see these guys were real hotshots. We recognized that we were of a similar ilk—competitive and into running. So, in about 1970, we started to run regularly together. At first, we used to do the circuit training on Mondays and Wednesdays and a five-mile race every Friday. And then on Sundays, we’d come in and run 2 miles.

Eventually, more people saw us training and joined us. Before long, our group expanded… The numbers grew considerably. What developed was a biannual five-mile race held during Christmas time and in the spring. I kept records of every race that we ran and every person who participated from 1974 to the present. I had this blue notebook with records, photographs, film over that long period of time.

When we were younger and competed in these races we ran so hard that we hardly ever spoke to each other. I mean, we couldn’t talk after the race! We didn’t really get to know each other except as competitors. So we decided to amplify our activity and started a couple of things: an arts and letters night, and then other events, music and humour and original poetry—you get the idea. We got to know the other side of each other. We also had an annual golf tournament. I must tell you, most of us were not very good golfers.

Several of us used to run barefoot and shirtless. And we used to do the lap times in 30 seconds or under. We were really nuts. I ran barefoot for about 10 years on that track.

For some reason, I’m lucky—I can still run.

Now the sad news, of the original guys who started in the 1970s, 14 have died. Mike Yealland and I are the only original guys still running.

Thanks to our Friday series, the spirit still lives. This is the wonderful thing, a beautiful story, and Hart House lies at the heart of it.In the last few years, I’ve noticed physical fitness has become more attractive to people. And one of the ways to get fit is to run. Because anyone can run. It’s just a matter of how fast you want to go. Many people come to Hart House and sit on the exercise machines with their telephones. And then they see the Friday races. Young people and old guys running together. “Looks interesting. Maybe I should try it.”

Once they try it, they’re hooked.

For me, at 80, to have the company, to share this with young people, keeps me young. It really is wonderful.

Being a professor at the University of Toronto was an honour and privilege. I know I’m biased, but this is a great university. It’s clearly the best university in our country and one of the best in the world. And, you know, in my professional life I travelled an awful lot, especially in Eastern Europe, China, and elsewhere. As a young professor, I was always struck by the fact that when you told your colleagues that you were from the University of Toronto, they were visibly impressed.

Art is my passion. I’ve always loved art. I started painting in 1967. [ Points to a painting on the wall.] That was one of my first paintings. It’s terrible. Since I retired, I’ve done over 100 paintings. I’ve had four shows.

I’ve watched a lot of things come and go in Hart House. I love what it does for students and people of all ages. I was chair of the art committee for six years. I’ve been a part of the House for such a long time, it’s part of me. I did a painting of Hart House. I entitled it “Heart House.” It’s the courtyard, the view that you had looking down at the courtyard, to the west. And standing in the middle is me, with a big smile on my face.

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