John Woodruff, Connellsville's Olympic Champion
By Jim Kriek
John Woodruff leaned back in his chair, looked far away and back over the years for a second, then smiled, "I have often wondered just how far I really ran that day."
"The Day" was August 4, 1936, in Berlin, Germany, when Woodruff pulled what was then called "the most daring move ever seen on track" to win the 800-meters Gold Medal in the Olympic Games, the last ones held before World War Two. The international competition would not resume until 1948 in London.
But back on that hot August day in 1936, Woodruff had finished his freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh, and after a short visit to his home in Connellsville, PA, had sailed to Berlin.
As he reflected on that day, Woodruff also had to be remembering his early days in Connellsville, and how he came within a couple moves of perhaps not finishing high school, let alone competing in the Olympics.
John's grandparents had been slaves in Virginia, and after Civil War and the family eventually ended up in Connellsville, PA, where John was born, one of 12 children of Silas and Sarah Woodruff, some of whom died in infancy. His father worked for the H.C. Frick Coke Co., and his mother did laundry for several families in the city.
That was the background for a success story that defies even the imagination of Horatio Alger and the rags to riches stories that America's youth grew up reading.
When John laughed as he recalled "my mother reminded me that I had chores to do around our home and I was getting home from football practice too late to get them done. I had to cut wood and bring in coal. So, football would have to go, period. My chores came first."
Imagine parents doing that today, especially those parents who never had any athletic glory of their town and who are trying to achieve it through their sons.
John had to give up football, but here is where the first step came toward his Olympic success.
While practicing football, the end of every workout was punctuated by a series of sprints and a lap around the track. It didn't take long for the coaches to see that John was always out in front of the others on those runs, especially then assistant football coach Joseph (Pop) Larew, who was also head track coach. Larew made a mental note of John's speed and now he outran all others at practice.
Meanwhile, John decided to quit school.
As he recalled "this was Depression times, and there was very little money in our house, so I figured if I could find some kind of job I could earn a little bit of money and help out at home. I quit school, but when I went looking for work nobody was hiring. I was turned down everywhere. So I decided to go back to school."
Then came the second big step towards the Olympics.
In spring, when it came time for a track to begin, Coach Larew approached John about trying the sport. John's mother agreed, since he would be getting home earlier than he did in football, and could get his chores done.
The first time he ever ran in scholastic competition, John won both the 880-yard and mile runs, and before he graduated in 1935 he owned new school, county, district, and state records, plus in 1935 he broke the national school mile record with a 4:23.4 winning time.
Now it was time to think about college, and as John recalled "I was interested in Ohio State because Jesse Owens was there, but there was some business people in Connellsville who were also Pitt men and they got me a scholarship to Pitt. It wasn't for that scholarship, I couldn't have made it. I was the only one from my family to go to college."
John remembered also that "things were bad then." I reported to Pitt with 25-cents in my pocket. Some people in Pittsburgh helped me get a room at the YMCA in the Hill District, and I had to fight the bedbugs for sleeping space. Pitt track coach Carl Olson gave me $5 and since hamburgers were a nickel and hot beef sandwiches 20 cents, I made that do a week."
John had a job helping clean the football stadium and basketball gym after games that helped him that first year. Then he obtained a job working on the Pitt grounds and was able to eat in the school cafeteria.
John thought he might get home for that summer of 1936, but he won the Allegheny Mountain Assn. Meet 880, and advances to the Olympic semi-final trials at Harvard Stadium. A victory moved him to the finals at Randalls Island, NT, where he won again and was on his way to Berlin.
To get that win, he had to outrun a standout field of American distance runners, nationally acclaimed runners like Ben Eastman of California, who some track experts called invincible (how wrong they would be!), Chuck Hornbostel and Marmaduke Hobbs of Indiana, Harry Williamson of North Carolina, Charley Beethman of Ohio State, Abe Rosenkrantz of Michigan Normal, and Jimmy Miller of UCLA. John outran them all in 1:51 and was on his way to Europe.
He arrived in Germany on August 2, 1936, and ran away from the field in the semi-finals of the 800-meters, winning 20 yards over Kazamiere of Poland and Carlos Anderson of Argentina, in that order.
John, who owned a measured 9-foot stride and was christened "Seven League Boots" by the late James M. Driscoll, publisher of the Connellsville Courier, was hailed by Arthur Daley of the New York Times, who wrote then "if the other half-milers are smart enough to keep cutting in front of him and force him to chop that gigantic stride of his, they may beat him. But if they let him get out by himself, he should breeze in!"
How prophetically right he proved to be.
On the race day, John lined up with Phil Edwards of Canada, Italy's Mario Lanzi, Anderson, Williamson, Hornbostel, Kucharski, McCabe of England, and Backhouse of Australia.
Edwards got the lead at the start, with Woodruff second, over the first lap, followed closely by Anderson, Williamson, and Hornbostel. As they went to the second lap backstretch, Woodruff took the lead, but only for an instant, as Edwards (who had run in two previous Olympics) moved around him.
As John recalled "I was just a young, novice runner, against these experienced veteran runners, and pretty soon they had me boxed in and I couldn't get out."
But was the field neared the final turn, Woodruff made a move that caused the crowd to grasp, a move that Jesse Abramson, covering the games for the New York Herald-Tribune, called "the most daring move seen on a track."
He came to a complete stop, let the other runners get around him, and then moved to the outside two lanes wide.
John remembered, "I actually stopped. I got spiked, but I didn't realize it until I saw the blood on my leg after the race. I moved out into the third lane and was last in the pack. I felt I had to do something drastic, for I couldn't break between the two leaders because I could have been disqualified on a foul. From the third lane, I got around everybody and took the lead."
He began charging for home in his long, lengthening stride, until with one final burst of speed he took the lead and held it to the tape in 1:52.9, beating out Lanzi, who had edged ahead of Edwards, followed by Kucharski, McCabe, Backhouse, Anderson, Hornbostel, and Williamson.
For the first time in 24 years the United States had an 800 Gold Medal. The last American to win before that was Ted Meredith in 1912, with British runners dominating the event in between.
The late Fred Snell of Connellsville, who for many years judged western Pennsylvania track events recognized as an authority on the sport, once recalled "when John was boxed in, there was no way to get out, so he had to stop, then get to the outside. Those were all smart experienced runners, but he won his medal the hard way, on ability and courage against them. Had he not been boxed and forced to go outside, if he could have led all the way, you have to wonder what time would have been."
Every winner in the 1936 Olympics received an oak tree from the Black Forest of Germany, presented by the German government. John brought his home, and presented it to the city of Connellsville. It was planted at the south end of the city football stadium, where today it still stands more than 60 feet straight and tall, just like the man who brought it home from Germany.
Following the games, John and some of his Olympic teammates toured Europe and competed in local meets in Dresdon, Cologne, Oslo, London, and Paris. On August 15, Woodruff, Williamson, Hornbostel, and Bob Young won the 2-mile relay in 7:35.8, then a world record.
When John returned from Europe, he was greeted by a mammoth parade in his hometown, with the Associated Press story noting there were 10,000 townspeople there to welcome their champion home.
John remembered "they presented me with a fine watch, a Lord Elgin, with an engraving on the back acknowledging my Olympic achievement. That fall, on my first day of practice at Pitt, we were told to put our clothes in baskets in open lockers when we changed into our sweat suits. We were to be assigned lockers the next day. I put my watch in the pocket of my pants, but when I came back, it was gone. Gone for good. I had it only two months. I was told not to make a big fuss about it."
John then went on to an outstanding Pitt track career that included three national collegiate half-mile championships, three IC4A championships in the 440 and 880, a new American record in the 800-meters, a world record half-mile run at the Cotton Bowl, in Dallas, Texas, national AAU half-mile championships, and various school and state honors.
John graduated from Pitt in 1939, with a major in sociology, and then earned a Masters Degree in the same field from New York University in 1941. He entered military service in 1941 as a Second Lieutenant and was discharged as a Captain in 1945. He reentered military service during the Korean War, and left in 1957 as a Lieutenant Colonel. He commanded two battalions; one of them integrated, and was executive officer for five different artillery battalions. He continued serving in the army reserves, from which he is now retired.
Over the years he worked with the New York City Children's Aid Society, taught school in New York City, was a special investigator for the New York Dept. of Welfare, was Recreation Center Director for the New York City Police Athletic League, and served as a parole officer for the state of New York.
Today he is retired and living in New Jersey. He returns to Connellsville every summer to be official starter for the John Woodruff 5-K Run and Walk, established in his honor and he presents trophies to the winners. For many years he was an official for the annual Penn Relays in Philadelphia.
In 1976 he presented his many medals and Olympic sweater to Connellsville High School where they are on display and can be seen by students on their way to class.
An outstanding career, indeed, but as John said long ago, "I sometimes wonder what direction I might have gone if my Mother hadn't told me to give up football because of the work I had to do at home."
Then he added, with a big smile, "and I still often wonder just how far I really ran that day to win an 800-meter race!"
Provided by the Connellsville Area Historical Society. Added to the site on February 2, 2000.