70 years ago today, Connellsville native John Woodruff sprinted from last to first to win gold at Berlin Olympics

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

The stride is long gone. The stride that made him Long John Woodruff. The stride that was celebrated for covering 10 feet at once. The stride that 70 years ago today allowed him to come to almost a complete stop, extricate himself from a box of world-class runners and sprint from last to first and win the 1936 Olympic 800 meters under the Nazis' nose.

John Woodruff crossing the finish line victorious at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
Click photo for larger image.

It was as a member of the "black auxiliaries," as Adolf Hitler lumped an entire race, that he captured one of the few track gold medals that Jesse Owens didn't in Berlin.

That stride ended five years ago. Poor circulation and complications from a broken hip caused doctors to amputate both of his legs above the knees.

Long John Woodruff, when he isn't bed-ridden, navigates in a wheelchair.

"What an irony and tragedy, huh?" said John Lucas, the Olympic movement's foremost historian and former Penn State professor in kinesiology. "The guy with the longest legs and the fastest legs."

Not that the feet made the man, nor even his feat. Quicksilver athletes come and go. Gold medalists fade. What differentiated Mr. Woodruff was the force, the determination that whisked him from potential factory life in Connellsville to the first college education in his family, from a year at Pitt as a sinewy freshman to a world champion, from last to first in perhaps the most politically charged Olympics, from racism to singular success, and now, turning 91 years old just one month ago, from aging to the ensuing hurdle.

He already has declared himself ready for his next race: He's going for 100.

"I'd rather be without my legs and have a good mind," Mr. Woodruff said Wednesday from Fountain Hills, Ariz., where he and his wife, Rose, share an apartment in an assisted-living facility in which his mostly white neighbors still call him Long John. He had spoken by telephone the day before with Margaret Bergmann Lambert, a German high jumper excluded by the Nazis from those 1936 Olympics because she was Jewish. Mr. Woodruff joked, "She's up in age, though: She's 92; I'm 91. We're still hanging in there."

"He sets little markers for himself," added his son, John Jr., a trial lawyer in New York. "When a grandchild is born, 'I want to be there when he graduates high school.' He's an indomitable spirit. What he was as an athlete is what he is as a man. Just a powerful kind of person with a will and a spirit.

"My father, for me, was a towering giant. When I think what [racism and boundaries and, later, ill health] he went through, it's phenomenal. I now view him, very much so, as being my hero."

This is the story of an Olympic champion who was the grandson of former Virginia slaves and the son of hard-working Fayette County parents whom John Jr. described as "basically illiterate" -- John Woodruff signed his own report cards for his father. There were a dozen Woodruff children, though not all survived infancy. Amid all this, Long John Woodruff grew into a star athlete at Connellsville High, receiving a scholarship offer from Pitt. At that point, a Woodruff had never attended college. He didn't plan to, either.

"It was kind of a given that once you graduated from high school, ... you got positions at the glass factory," John Jr. said of that Connellsville era. "He went to apply, and they said, 'We don't hire Negroes.'

"Most of his friends were white and got hired there."

College became Mr. Woodruff's best, if not only, option.

He remembers living for a time at the black YMCA on Francis Street, subsisting for a week on $5 from Pitt track coach Carl Olson. He cleaned up Pitt Stadium after football games, worked on the campus grounds to earn pay and ate in the school cafeteria. When a team such as the U.S. Military Academy refused to compete against blacks, Mr. Woodruff was left behind at Pitt. On the road, he had to find accommodations with a local black family or hotel.

As a freshman, he won gold medals at the Penn Relays and NCAA meets, and the adventure was just beginning in 1936. A spindly 21-year-old about to start his sophomore year, Mr. Woodruff found himself in tense Germany that August on an Olympic track team consisting of the largest contingent of U.S. black athletes yet (12). In one Nazi newspaper, Hitler propagandist Joseph Goebbels wrote: "If America didn't have her black auxiliaries, where would she be in the Olympic Games ... ?" This at a time when the Nazis spread anti-Jewish hatred across Germany, placing these Summer Games in a racially charged environment.

"It was easy to sell the Germans on hating Jews," Olympic historian David Wallechinsky, who is Jewish, said of the scapegoat mentality. "But they looked at blacks [differently]. It wasn't something they saw in their daily life. It wasn't threatening. They were actually admired. There's a funny story: Back then, in the days before security, people were going over to the Olympic Village and knocking on Jesse Owens' window to seek his autograph, they were so impressed."

Much of what was written about those 1936 Olympics proved mythical, Mr. Wallechinsky continued, pointing out the tale about Hitler slighting Mr. Owens after one of his then-record four gold-medal performances. Almost exclusively, Hitler greeted only German champions in his stadium box.

Will Powers, Special to the Post-Gazette
Olympic gold medalist and Pitt star John Woodruff, 91, rests in his bedroom Wednesday in Fountain Hills, Ariz.
Click photo for larger image.

"He snubbed African-Americans," Mr. Lucas said. "But he also snubbed Argentines, Icelandics and everybody else. The German race was the only race and the superior race in the world in his eyes."

Accounts vary, but Mr. Woodruff believes Hitler's eyes witnessed that 800-meter race on Aug. 4, 1936. Canadian Phil Edwards set a slow pace, causing a mass of runners to enclose a 6-foot-3 American upstart. Mr. Woodruff's next move was a daring one: "I had to stop and go out into the third lane. So, I actually started the race twice."

"I called it one of the most unusual tactics ever," Mr. Wallechinsky said, picking up the story. "Three-hundred meters into the race, he was completely boxed in. Instead of pushing his way through" -- and potentially earning a disqualification if he spiked or hindered another runner -- "he just slowed down completely and let everybody get ahead of him. Everybody. Then he went outside and just passed everybody."


Mr. Edwards charged late, but Mr. Woodruff held off that eventual bronze medalist and second-place silver medalist Mario Lanzi of Italy. He won in one minute, 52.9 seconds.

"He just finished his freshman year, and these were all pros he was running against," Mr. Lucas said. "After the first lap, he was in last place and had a bewildered look on his face, so we read. And then he probably ran 805 meters instead of 800. What he did in 1936 was amazing."

While his friend Jesse Owens (who attended his wedding) could hardly capitalize on his Olympic success, being reduced to paying promotions in which he raced against horses, Mr. Woodruff maintained his amateur-track success. Through 1939, he swept up triumphs at the NCAA, Penn Relays and AAU national meets.

Robin Rombach, Post-GazetteJohn Woodruff's gold medal for the 800-meter run in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin hangs on a plaque in the Hillman Library in Oakland.

"I don't know where those gold medals are," said Mr. Woodruff, who settled in New York, where he worked three jobs at once -- as an Army lieutenant colonel, parole officer, salesman and others -- to support his family, including son John Jr. and daughter Randi, now self-employed in Chicago. "Somebody's got them, but I don't."

His Olympic gold medal hangs in Pitt's Hillman Library. Other track mementos are at Connellsville High, including a tree -- awarded each Berlin winner -- planted at the high school stadium. The black-and-white photo of Long John Woodruff finishing first in Berlin adorns a wall in his Arizona home.

For this anniversary, he said, he just might get in his wheelchair and take his wife, Rose, out to "one of the better Phoenix restaurants and celebrate a little bit. I'm hoping to be able to celebrate, at least."

"I have to say my father is a very spiritual man, a very religious man. I keep saying it's the only thing that's keeping him going, because he isn't in very good health," John Jr. added wistfully. "It's really odd to me: This is the man they called Long John, he had a 10-foot-long stride. He was all leg. I could never even keep up with him walking. No one could."

Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1724.


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?