The Legacy of John Woodruff


CONNELLSVILLE, PA—Like an old friend with its mighty branches, the monumental 78-foot oak tree on the left corner of Connellsville’s synthetic track and football field, Falcon Stadium, again welcomed everyone for the 29th annual John Woodruff 5K Run & Walk on Wednesday, July 13, 2011.

It is this event and tree that honor a great man whose early rise to fame as a 21-year-old freshman of the University of Pittsburgh, or Pitt, astounded the world on August 4, 1936. He won the gold medal in the 800 meters at the XI Olympiad of Berlin for the United States. These games, made famous by Jesse Owens’ four golds (in the 100- and 200- meter dash, 400-meter relay, and long broad jump) saw American athletes win 24 golds — 56 medals total, second behind Germany’s 89 medals.

Apart from the Aryan philosophy and segregation, a potted English Oak seedling from the German forest was presented to the 94 gold medalists of the 49 competing nations as a sign of “good will” and inspiration. From all accounts, of the 19 trees remaining around the world and the six in the U.S., this 75-year-old tree is the only one domestically to bear acorns.

Bearing a sense of inspiration, maybe I’ll return in the fall to this small city nestled in Penn’s Woods, about 40 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, to gather an acorn and grasp the story of how John Youie Woodruff, “Long John,” with nine-foot strides clinched victory. Though favored, but a novice to international competition, Mr. Woodruff would later comment, “You see, when you’re running a race, you’re concentrating on what you’re doing. You may hear noise, but you can’t hear anything distinctly.”

So it was this distinction between the 100,000 spectators and a field of nine to concentrate during a slow pace displaying a brilliant and tactical maneuver. Boxed in and fearing a foul, while being spiked, Mr. Woodruff literally stopped at 300 meters before moving outside and soon onto a victory. A coincidence of today’s 5K, early Olympics, to win the 800 came 24 years following America’s James Meredith and not in 1948 and 1952. In these moments, I’m reminded of the great narrations and footage by Olympic historian Bud Greenspan, whose calming words would say, “In the 800 meters, John Woodruff, United States, first, (1:52:09); Mario Lanzi, Italy, second, and Phil Edwards, Canada, third.”

In other quiet moments and the two classic venues, I’ve had the opportunity of being at the tracks of the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field (with its photos of Steve Prefontaine and Coach Bill Bowerman, accompanied by his bronze statue) in the summer of 2007 and two years earlier at Philadelphia’s, the University of Pennsylvania, Franklin Field, the Penn Relays and the oldest meet in the country. It was here in 1994, the 100th anniversary, that Mr. Woodruff and his eight victories were inducted into their Hall of Fame receiving more votes than any other competitor!

Nurtured much like this tree, first at the local library, then planted in 1939 at the completed stadium, Mr. Woodruff’s birth in South Connellsville was as one of 12 children to Silas and Sarah Woodruff and their only child to attend college. (Even when he quit school to earn money for his family, the beginnings of racism barred Mr. Woodruff from any work.) Returning to finish high school, between the long football practices and his noticeable stride, running track at the former Fayette Field became the new choice because it also meant finishing earlier to perform home chores. And what would have happened if “Johnny” followed his idol, Jesse Owens, to Ohio State. (Two men whose athletic careers and states might relate to Canton’s Pro Football HOF instead being located in Latrobe, PA.)

Fortunately, persuasion by local businessmen and Pitt alumni directed Mr. Woodruff to become a Panther on an athletic scholarship. (Still, Mr. Woodruff needed to work at Pitt Stadium and the cafeteria to earn extra money while Pitt Track Coach Carl Olsen and Pittsburgh Courier Editor Robert L. Vann also contributed to John’s expenses.)

“Citius, Altius, Fortius--Faster, Higher, Stronger,” the Olympic motto Mr. Woodruff would embody, winning every race after Berlin. (As a national AAU champion in the 800 in 1937, the NCAA’s 800 1937-1939, and the regional meets of the IC4A for the 400 and 800.) Still, more segregation followed Mr. Woodruff in 1936 when he and other black teammates were barred from competing against the Navy. A year later at a meet in Fair Park, Dallas, his world-record time of 1:47:08 was disallowed because officials claimed the track was six feet short! Many years later, the same distance was estimated and measured to be correct. By 1940, Mr. Woodruff would conclude his brilliant career, running a world-record 1:47:06 in Hanover, NH. (Set in 2010, the world record of 1:41:01 was run by David Lekita Rudisha of Kenya.)

Starting new careers as a graduate with a B.A. and a Masters in Sociology from Pitt and NYU, respectively, Mr. Woodruff would first serve in the Army as Second Lieutenant, then Captain, with a discharge in 1945, returning again during the Korean War and finally leaving in 1957 as a Lieutenant Colonel. In civilian life, Mr. Woodruff, in the New York City area, served as a teacher, coach, official for Madison Square Garden meets, a special investigator for the NY Department of Welfare, a recreation director for the NYC Police Athletic League, a salesman, and an assistant director for the Edison (NJ) Job Corps.

Eventually, John and wife, Rose, would retire to Fountain Hills, Arizona. Still, recognition would follow Mr. Woodruff, such as on 9/11/06 during the Pitt-Michigan State football game, when he and others--like another football recruit turned gold medalist (1984-1988) Roger Kingdom in the 110 High Hurdles--were honored; and in April 2007, along with the Tuskegee Airmen, throwing out the first pitch at an Arizona Diamondbacks game. Mr. Woodruff’s legacy would coincide with two other local celebrities: national champion and 1947 Notre Dame Heisman Trophy winner, quarterback Johnny Lujack, and renowned jazz trumpeter Harold Betters, who was also the starter for the 2007 challenging 5K loop. Also, at that 25th race, each finisher received a small replica XI gold medal.

That a special and distinctive honor of any race in the country came in 1982, led by high school classmate Peter Tallacino and friends to create this race held on the first or second Wednesday at 7 p.m. separating themselves, as John would in 1936, from most weekend summer events. Another coincidence in this classic, which usually followed MLB’s All-Star Game, in 1936 saw Mathew “Mack” Robinson win a silver medal in the 200-meter dash, of whose younger brother was baseball’s Jackie Robinson! Silver and gold medals should also be awarded to the 12-person John Woodruff Committee, whose diligent work of preparation begins early each year, culminating to present each participant, and preferable to winter running, a long-sleeve shirt and an imprinted glass each containing the silhouette of John’s victory finish, to be followed by celebrations of beer at Bud Murphy’s Restaurant across the town. Another unique idea on this diamond anniversary, during a record 873 entered, was 24-karat gold on a gold ribbon with others sold to the public. Even this year’s shirt recognized Mr. Woodruff’s Olympic singlet of his number 745 over red, white, and blue diagonal stripes.

My personal moments of the 11 races run began in 1999, meeting Mr. Woodruff, who for so many years was the starter and posed with all the winners at the track. Sadly, diabetes and other ailments caused both of his legs to be amputated, and by Oct. 30, 2007, his many medals and sweater that are in the high school, his gold medal in Pitt’s Hillman Library, and the tree, proceeds from the race benefit a scholarship for CAHS graduate.

“I guess I was born with a natural ability to run,” Mr. Woodruff would say. And say, so should we, and hopefully you’ll join us to enter the 30th JW classic while I’ll return this fall to pick up a piece of history.

Thanks to Bill Coleman, Nancy Dye, Judy Keller, and the John Woodruff Committee for their invaluable input, to Bob Bubarth, our Bud Murphy’s host, the city of Connellsville, SERJ Timing Services, the CAHS track coaches, all my running and walking friends, and dear friend Joseph for keeping me motivated.

Articles and posts are attributed to: 7/11/11 (Connellsville) Harold-Standard and (Pittsburgh) Tribune-Review; Bruce Steele, Pitt Chronicle 11/5/07; Matt Schudel, Washington Post 11/3/07; LA Times 11/2/07; Chuck Finder, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 8/4/06; George Tanber, ESPN, Black History Month, 2/07; and Jim Kriek, Fay, 2/2/00.

5K Run


1. Wade Schnorr .16:48
2. Michael Jacobyansky 17:09
3. Bob Nedley 17:41


1. Natalie Bower .18:32
2. Melissa McCann 21:09
3. Michelle Maymick .21:16

5K Walk


1. Lee Stough .27:15
2. Don Slusser 28:41
3. Justin Rasor 30:36


1. Jamie Brooks 30:00
2. Debbie McGee 32:02
3. Gloria Antoon 33:07