Tom Purcell writes a syndicated column that occasionally appears in the Bulletin as a substitute for one of the newspaperís regular columnists. He is distributed by Cagle Cartoons which would suggest that his is a humor column. As is often the case with humor, it can help awaken one to an otherwise overlooked trend. Such was the case recently with a Purcell column.

Perhaps, I was aware of the change in the nationís public schools and I did not process the information. I would hope that was the case since I am married to a former public school teacher and my daughter is currently employed as one. Purcell, in writing about overweight kids, shared a fact he read in a Washington Post report - physical education classes are offered in fewer than 10 percent of public schools in the U.S. I was astounded; it is no wonder we have an obesity problem with American youth.

I am having trouble understanding how we could have let that happen. I was in school when President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the Presidentís Council on Youth Fitness in 1956. At the time, Ike was concerned about the results of a study that indicated U.S. kids were less fit than European youth. In 1963 President Kennedy changed the name to the Presidentís Council on Physical Fitness and expanded the mandate to all Americans as well as youth. Three years later President Johnson broadened the mission to include sports and added that distinction to the name. And as recently as 2002, President Bush reinvigorated the council under the direction of former NFL football star Lynn Swann. With all the attention on physical fitness from the highest office in the country, why is this not a priority in the public schools?

Over the last half century, the organized sports industry has experienced a remarkable growth. From the little league level to the professional, boys and girls sports, new sports like soccer and hockey and old sports like baseball and football, the growth has been universal. But not every child is hard wired to be an athlete. That does not mean they cannot learn how to be physically fit through regular exercise and eating balanced meals. And the lessons they learn from physical education classes may turn out to have as much value and application for them as the lessons learned in the ďacademicĒ classes.

I can still remember my first exposure to the gymnasium in my elementary school. We were being given an orientation to the facility, equipment and the rules. There was a large rope hanging from a very tall ceiling and the class was asked if anyone wanted to volunteer to climb the rope. I made it to the top without too much trouble but my form coming down was less than stellar. All of my experience with climbing had been trees and garages in the neighborhood. The teacher coached me through using the same hand over hand method for coming down that I had used going up. I am sure it saved me from a serious rope burn on my hands.

In elementary school most of us were exposed to group games like volleyball, sideline basketball, dodge ball and kickball for the first time. Some kids were naturally better than others but the games were organized so everyone got to play. In junior high school another dimension was added, swimming classes, and it was interesting to watch the reaction of some students when they learned that they were mandatory. I was fortunate in that I had taken a class with my Cub Scout troop at the YMCA, but some my seventh-grade classmates were petrified of going into deep water. Each day of the week students participated in a different activity in P.E. class. I remember coming through the double doors and checking the blackboard to discover what the activity was to be that day. I will admit that I looked forward more to the sports games than I did the health studies, but they were 20 percent of the class. And the lessons about the benefits of balancing the four basic food groups stuck with me as did the Red Cross procedures.

We read more frequently about the concern over the growing level of obesity in the country. There are calls for increased regulations in labeling of food products and for outlawing certain foods and beverages from public schools. But the food police are not going to make up for the lack of providing, teaching and encouraging good physical fitness.

Robert Brincefield is vice president and publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Sunday. He may be reached by e-mail at bob.brincefield@brownwoodbulletin.com.