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When Phil and Eloise Caldwell first began handling the distribution of T-shirts for the Quad-City Times Bix 7, it was a fairly small operation that only required the help of a few people.

That was 1980. The year before that, the shirts had been distributed out of a small outdoor booth near the starting line of the fledgling race. But in 1980, the number of entries more than doubled to about 2,500. The numbers continued to go up and up, occasionally topping 20,000.

“In the beginning, when the shirts got delivered, all the boxes fit on our front porch,’’ Phil Caldwell recalled.

“It got too big so then they started delivering them to our garage. Then, we also did the volunteers shirts so we went into the neighbors’ garage, too. It got so big. Finally we got smart and had all the shirts delivered right down to the RiverCenter.’’

Nearly 40 years later, the Caldwells still are involved. Phil is now 86 and Eloise is 85. They long ago handed over the chairmanship of the T-shirt committee to their daughter, Joy Huffman, and her husband, John. This year it passes to their granddaughter, Heather Gibbs, and her husband, Tom.

“But Phil and Eloise are still involved,’’ long-time race director Ed Froehlich said. “They still go down there (to the pre-race packet pickup). I don’t think they have to lift boxes any more, but they go through all of it. Phil is still the one who orders the shirts so he keeps track of how many we have to have in different sizes. They’re very active.’’

Froehlich has pronounced this year’s 44th annual Bix 7, scheduled for July 28, as the “year of the family.’’ He hopes that local families will sign up to participate in the race’s various events, whether it be the full 7-mile race, the 2-mile Quick Bix or the Arconics Jr. Bix 7 for runners ages 12 and under.

But the family-wide participation long ago became part of the Bix 7’s various committees, especially the one charged with distributing the T-shirts.

The Caldwells’ involvement with the Bix 7 dates all the way back to the inaugural race in 1975.

After giving birth to seven children, Eloise was looking for a way to stay in shape, so she took up running at the age of 40 in 1973. She was one of only three women in the 84-runner field for the 1975 Bix 7.

Eloise got good enough that she became a nationally ranked women’s masters runner. At one time, she held the Iowa state 50-and-over records for several distances, including the marathon.

“I started at 40 and at 50 is when I ran my best races,’’ she said.

Her running prowess and her ongoing devotion to the Bix 7 were rewarded in 2011 when the trophy that goes to the top local female finisher in the race was named in her honor.

Phil ran his first Bix 7 in 1977 and through the years the couple did more than 30 marathons as well as being regulars in the Bix 7 field for several decades.

Their running days are over.

Now they walk. Every morning. They used to hike the bike path in Davenport near the home they owned there. Now they cruise the Bettendorf neighborhood around the condo they bought about a year ago.

“Whether I want to or not,’’ Phil said with a chuckle. “She’s decided we’re going to walk every morning.’’

And yes, they’re still very involved in the T-shirt operation. There is a lot of sorting, organizing and folding to be done and they’ll be among the dozens of volunteers handing out shirts to runners and walkers on the Thursday and Friday before the race at the Davenport RiverCenter.

Almost all of their seven children have been involved in the T-shirt operation at one time or another through the years, as have many of the grandkids. Phil said he doesn’t feel any of them were forced to jump in and help.

“Eventually, they all volunteered,’’ he said.

Heather Gibbs said she remembers passing out shirts at the packet pickup center when she was a little kid.

“I've considered it a summer tradition for around 30 years,’’ she said. “I'm nervous and excited to be co-chair with Tom. There is absolutely no way we can ever fill (Phil and Eloise’s) shoes and I feel so lucky to have them and my parents mentoring us as we learn the ropes.’’

Froehlich, who first met the Caldwells in the early years of the race and got to know them much better when he became the race director the same year they took on the T-shirt duties, said they epitomize the family spirit of the race. He refers to them as “wonderful people.’’

Joy Huffman said her parents are “an inspiration to me and my husband.

“We can’t keep up with them,’’ she added.

Heather Gibbs said she can't help but be inspired by all the family members who have overseen this committee before her.

"One of the most important things my grandparents — and parents — have instilled in me is the belief that you can achieve anything you put your focus and energy to, and being female in no way limits that,'' she said.

Phil Caldwell said he and Eloise plan to remain involved with the committee and the race that they love for as long as they can.

“Heather and Tom are now doing the majority of the work now,’’ he said. “Eloise and I are just doing what we can here and there.’’

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