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75 years later, Connellsville still celebrating Woodruff's legend

| Monday, July 11, 2011

Ten African-Americans won 14 medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, according to various sources. Most dazzling was Jesse Owens, who scored four golds in track. Because of that, his achievements overshadowed those of his fellow athletes. Some are long forgotten.

But in Connellsville, John Woodruff (who died in 2007 at age 92) has been a local legend for 75 years. Woodruff was the first African-American to receive the gold at the 1936 games, medaling in the 800-meter run. The last American who had won the gold in that event was Ted Meredith in 1912.

When Woodruff returned home in 1936, 10,000 people turned out for a parade in his honor. The city presented him with an engraved wristwatch, which was stolen soon after from the locker room at the University of Pittsburgh, when he was a student there.

That Woodruff medaled in the 800 meter shouldn't have been a surprise. He had been breaking records since high school.

The tall, gangly Woodruff, a grandson of Virginia slaves, grew up during hard times. His parents, Silas and Sarah Woodruff, had nine other children to feed besides John -- one boy and eight girls. By the time John reached his teens, the country had spiraled down into the Great Depression.

Ran Like the Wind

While at Connellsville High School, Woodruff wanted to play football. Running windsprints down the field, the youth astonished coaches with his speed. He was advised to forget football and stick to track -- which made his mother happy, because football practice took up more time than track and he was needed at home to do chores.

Although he quit school temporarily to find work, he couldn't find a job because of the Depression. So he returned to school and to running. He was nicknamed "Long John" by his teammates because of his 9-foot-long stride.

The first time he competed, Woodruff won the 880-yard and the mile runs. Before his 1935 graduation, he'd broken school, county, district and state records. He also shattered the national school record in 1935.

With the help of some local businessmen, Woodruff was able to go to the University of Pittsburgh. Interviewed in 1986, he said he never dreamed he'd get to the Olympics. But the Connellsville youth breezed through the qualifiers his freshman year and soon was aboard a ship that docked in Hamburg, Germany, for the Berlin games.

The late Jim Kriek of Connellsville, a local sportswriter/icon who passed away in 2006 at age 78, interviewed Woodruff several times during Kriek's long newspaper career. He always stressed that it wasn't just that Woodruff won the 800 meter -- it was how he did it.

As Kriek noted, a New York Times reporter wrote in 1936 that if Woodruff's opponents "let him get outside by himself, he should breeze in."

Boxed in and 'stopped'

On race day, Woodruff lined up against his competitors, including high-ranked Canadian Phil Edwards and Italy's Mario Lanzi, plus six others. After the gun fired, Woodruff soon found himself boxed in by the more seasoned striders.

He "stopped." The other runners moved around him and Woodruff was outside.

That's all it took. He got those long legs flying and burst ahead of Edwards at the finish line.

The late Fred Snell of Connellsville was a longtime Western Pennsylvania track judge. He once told Kriek, "Those (other) runners were all smart, experienced runners, but (John) won his medal the hard way, on ability and courage."

Soon Woodruff was back on the ship, headed for home.

He went on to a stellar track career at Pitt, graduating in 1939 with a degree in sociology. In 1941, he received a master's degree from the University of New York.

An honorable life

Woodruff had an exemplary military career, serving in World War II and the Korean War. When he left the service, it was as a lieutenant colonel.

His civilian careers included work with disadvantaged children, teaching, and serving as an investigator for the New York Department of Welfare, as well as being a parole officer -- all in New York. He also lived in other states, including New Jersey and Arizona, where he passed away.

His Olympic medals and sweater have been stored in a safe place at Connellsville Area High School. When renovations there are finished, the 1936 memorabilia again will be displayed as they have been since he donated the items in 1976 to inspire young athletes.

In 1982, the city began hosting an annual 5K to celebrate Woodruff's achievements. Honored, he and his wife, Rosie, would return to Connellsville whenever possible to attend the event, until his health worsened to the point that he became a double amputee because of diabetes complications. It was a sad situation for someone whose legs had carried him like the wind to a 1936 Olympic gold medal.

This year's 5K run is at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Connellsville Falcons Stadium on South Arch Street. A 5K walk begins at 7:05 p.m. A kids fun run for 9 and younger starts it all at 6 p.m.

Woodruff is survived by Rosie, who still lives in Arizona, as well as a son and a daughter from a previous marriage, and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The world at large may know Jesse Owens' name better, but in Connellsville, Woodruff is the name no one will ever forget.

Woodruff's Olympic oak one of only few known survivors from 1936

Runners and walkers are urged to pay attention as they enter the Falcons Stadium on Wednesday for the 29th annual John Woodruff 5K event. Look at the gigantic oak in the corner of the stadium on South Arch Street in Connellsville. It was planted 75 years ago as a sapling by Woodruff himself, who carted it across the Atlantic Ocean after winning a gold medal in track.

The towering tree is a member of a rare and distinguished group of English oak trees that were presented to 1936 Olympic gold medalists.

This year marks the diamond anniversary of the 1936 Olympics, held in Berlin, Germany. German dictator Adolph Hitler's Third Reich was gearing up for war but put on a false face to the world during the games, camouflaging the Nazis' real agenda of racial superiority.

When the games ended, as a good-will gesture the German people presented 130 oak tree saplings to the Olympic gold medalists. Twenty-four American athletes received the baby trees. The pots holding the seedlings were inscribed: "Grow to the honour of victory! Summon to further achievement!"

Seventy-five years later, only four to six U.S. Olympic oaks are known to survive. Connellsville's tree is one. (At least seven have died, and the others cannot be found.)

A 1994 study conducted by James Ross Constandt of Michigan located 33 Olympic oaks: 16 worldwide were still living in '94 and 17 were known to have died, according to Constandt's painstaking research. The status of the remaining 97 was still unknown.

Not all of the 24 U.S. trees made it home after the Olympics, said retired history teacher Judy Keller of Connellsville, who is a member of the 2011 Woodruff Race Committee. "Mr. Woodruff said some of the guys threw them overboard into the ocean, possibly as a gesture against the Nazis," Keller said.

But Woodruff was determined to plant that tree in Connellsville.

"When he got home, the sapling wasn't in good health, so he took it to his high school botany teacher, John Lewis. They nursed it. When it got strong, they planted it," Keller said.

First Planted at Carnegie Library

Its first planting was not at the football stadium, however. Woodruff and Lewis first planted the tiny tree near Carnegie Free Library until it took root.

"It was decided later to move the tree to the stadium, since that's where John (Woodruff) first ran for a track team," said Todd Durbin, who did extensive research on the tree in 2005 for its inclusion in the city's bicentennial booklet. Durbin's father, the late John Reagan, graduated high school with Woodruff.

Durbin researched many sources, including a book written by a man from Ohio State University. Constandt's study was done earlier at the University of Michigan. Information from that 1994 study was provided by Nancy Dye of Connellsville, who serves on the race committee. She and other area residents who are interested in local history want to make sure that the oak tree's importance is remembered in years to come.

In 1986, Dr. Donald Holst traveled to Connellsville to see the tree. Holst, who worked with Constandt on the tree study, had received information from Woodruff that the oak was alive and well. In keeping with the Olympic spirit, Holst gathered more than 100 acorns from the tree and began second-generation seedlings, intending to give the saplings to those affiliated with the 1936 Olympics and institutions associated with the 1936 athletes.

Tree Lives on in New Saplings

By 1994, 27 Woodruff Olympic oak seedlings had been distributed, according to Constandt's study, which also noted that the Connellsville tree is the only one in the United States that continues to produce seeds.

"It still is making acorns," added Karen Hechler, longtime member and officer of the Connellsville Area Historical Society. "There are trees growing throughout the U.S. that were started from the Woodruff oak."

"Woodruff's English oak tree is considered to be the best example of the 1936 Olympic trees," said Durbin, who praised the efforts of Connellsville's Shade Tree Commission, which monitors the tree's health. The commission is chaired by longtime forester Paul Whipkey.

"Our oak is not only rare in the United States but worldwide. We all should be thankful that Mr. Lewis and Mr. Woodruff planted it," Durbin said.

1936 Olympics no easy feat for African-American, Jewish athletes

The international Olympics are a world stage where thousands of athletes compete with good sportsmanship emphasized above all. Even in ancient Greece, where the Olympics originated, competition was fierce but peaceful in nature.

Olympic athletes expect to be treated honorably, on a level playing field. That certainly wasn't the case for Jewish and African-American athletes participating in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin during Adolf Hitler's reign. Their journey to the bronze, silver and gold was a twisted and uphill battle.

Ten African-Americans received 14 medals in 1936, including John Woodruff of Connellsville, who received a gold medal in the 800-meter run. Thirteen Jews medaled, only one from the United States -- Samuel Balter (gold, basketball). Considering the circumstances in Germany at the time, that was amazing.

By 1936, Hitler's Third Reich was obsessed with Aryan racial superiority. Jews and other "political enemies" were being sent to Dachau concentration camp. If people weren't blond-haired and blue-eyed in Hitler's Germany, they were suspect. The Reich was anxious to prove to the world that German Aryans were the epitome of the Olympic motto: "Faster, Higher, Stronger."

Hitler no sportsman

According to various sources, Hitler didn't like sports. He was talked into hosting the Olympics by Joseph Goebbels, the Reich's minister of propaganda. Goebbels convinced Hitler that the games would benefit the Reich, proving once and for all that Germans were superior to everyone else.

With Hitler on board, the Nazis constructed an enormous stadium seating 110,000 spectators. Huge red, white and black swastika flags flapped in the wind. Everything was done on a grand scale. Behind the scenes, treachery was simmering.

Before foreign tourists arrived in Berlin, the Nazis quietly removed anti-Jewish signs displayed on businesses. They toned down their inflammatory remarks in the newspapers. Outwardly, Berlin was an inviting, peaceful city. Foreigners were impressed; maybe, they thought, the rumors about Hitler's being dangerous weren't true after all.

But there was a snag in Hitler's plan. How could he appear fair to the world if he didn't allow Jews to participate• So, he allowed German Jews to train, but with substandard equipment and facilities. And if a German Jew looked like a contender, the Nazis made sure the athlete wouldn't compete.

Top Jewish athletes banned

Amateur boxer Eric Seelig was expelled from the German Boxing Association. Tennis player Daniel Prenn was taken off the Davis Cup Team. World Class high jumper Gretel Bergman was eliminated. They were all top Jewish athletes.

In a token gesture, blonde, Aryan-looking Helen Mayer was permitted to participate. She received a silver in fencing.

The Reich also was wary of blacks -- and there were 18 African-American athletes headed for Berlin, including Connellsville track star John Woodruff. These 1936 Olympians were no strangers to racial discrimination at home. There were no civil rights statutes back then. In the 1930s, Jim Crowe laws kept blacks segregated from whites whenever possible, especially in the South.

Boycott was suggested

Several countries proposed a boycott of the Berlin games. Those in support felt that competing would suggest to Hitler that they approved of his tactics. In the United States, there were mixed opinions. American Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage felt Olympics should belong to athletes, not politicians. Amateur Athletic Association President Jeremiah Mahoney declared participation would be a Hitler endorsement.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt said nothing, although he could have intervened.

In the end, the United States went to Germany, along with 48 other teams -- more than any previous Olympics. More than 4,000 athletes competed.

Did U.S. ban jews?

Just before the 400-meter relay, the United States removed two Jews from its lineup: Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, replacing them with African-Americans Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe. Many sources suggest that Brundage did that to appease Hitler. Glickman and Stoller were devastated.

Hitler's true colors showed when he refused to shake hands with Jewish or African-Americans. To appear "fair," he chose not to personally congratulate any of the medalists.

When the dust settled, German athletes came out on top and the U.S. team placed second. The grandiose event was praised by visitors worldwide, most of whom were unaware of the behind-the-scenes trickery.

A New York Times reporter suggested the games put the Germans "back in the fold of nations" and "made them more human." Only a few, such as foreign correspondent William Shirer, were not fooled by the glitter and glamor. He wrote that Germany had succeeded with its propaganda.

The 1940 Olympiad was to be held in Tokyo. Hitler boasted that after those games, Germany would host the event "for all time to come."

Next came war, not games

However, the games would not continue until 1948 in London.

In September 1939, Hitler stormed into Poland, launching World War II. In December 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, forcing the United States to join the war.

What pretended to be congenial competition was a prelude to global conflict. The war ended with millions dead worldwide, including 6 million Jews, gypsies and others deemed "inferior" -- a sad footnote to the Olympic tradition of fair competition of a peaceful nature.

1936 African-American Olympic medalists

• David Albritton, silver, high jump

• Cornelius Johnson, gold, high jump

• James LuValle, bronze, 400-meter run

• Ralph Metcalfe, gold, 400-meter relay; silver, 100-meter dash

• Jesse Owens, Golds, 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash, 400-meter relay, broad long jump

• Frederick Pollard Jr., bronze, 100-meter hurdles

• Matthew Robinson, silver, 200-meter dash

• Archie Williams, gold, 400-meter run

• Jack Wilson, silver, bantam weight boxing

• John Woodruff, gold, 800-meter run

1936 U.S. Jewish Olympic medalists

• Samuel Balter, gold, basketball

Other medalists

• 12 other medals were awarded to athletes from Hungary, Canada, Germany and Poland

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