Local Olympian given Naval Academy apology
Seventy years ago, Olympic gold medalist John Woodruff was denied the opportunity to compete in a track meet alongside his University of Pittsburgh teammates at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
Due to Maryland’s segregation laws, the academy refused to compete in the 1939 event if Woodruff ran, so he was left behind.
Woodruff, a black athlete who grew up in South Connellsville, never complained about it, said his wife, Rose. It was just the way things were back then — and he knew it.
“You learned how to accept the situation as it was,” said Rose Woodruff, who was married to the Olympian for 37 years.
Last month, the Naval Academy issued a public apology to John Woodruff.
Capt. Tony Barnes delivered the message.
“Mrs. Woodruff, we would like you to know that all of us here at the Naval Academy apologize and are sorry for what Mr. Woodruff faced in the past … this is not a time to cast blame, although certainly many deserve blame … now is the time to look at our bright future. Our new president reminds us that this is a time to act and act in a manner that will produce change,” Barnes said.
Rose Woodruff attended the Jan. 24 ceremony with her son, John Jr., and Connellsville friends Ceane O’Hanlon-Lincoln and her husband, Phillip.
“John never had bitterness,” said O’Hanlon-Lincoln, who interviewed the Connellsville High School graduate for her series of local history books. At the time, military schools were segregated, she said.
O’Hanlon-Lincoln said Woodruff told her, without bitterness: “Now, here I am an Olympic champion, and the Naval Academy told my coach, Pitt coach (Carl) Olson, that he could not bring me to the meet. Though Coach Olson tried to persuade them to let me come, I was forced to stay home due to discrimination.”
When the team traveled and the bus stopped at restaurants, Woodruff was forced to eat on the bus.
The ceremony was driven by O’Hanlon-Lincoln, who started a letter-writing campaign to the Naval Academy more than a year ago. It took place during the dedication of the academy’s new track and field house, which honors Wesley Brown, who in 1949 became its first black graduate. Brown went on to a distinguished Navy career.
“I wanted it for him so badly. I hope he’s looking down and knows about this,” O’Hanlon-Lincoln said.
Connellsville Mayor Judy Reed and city council provided a framed proclamation with a photo of the Olympic oak Woodruff received at the 1936 games in Berlin. He presented the tree to Connellsville High School, and it continues to thrive at Falcon Stadium.
O’Hanlon-Lincoln said the Navy has agreed to plant an offshoot of the tree next to the academy’s track.
Woodruff won the gold medal in the 800-meter race in the 1936 games, although his victory was overshadowed by the incredible exploits of teammate Jesse Owens.
Woodruff’s powerful legs — and that celebrated stride that earned him the nickname “Long John” — carried him across the finish line to capture one of the few gold medals that Owens did not claim.
Woodruff, who was favored going into the 800-meter contest, stunned spectators when he stopped running to avoid being boxed in by his opponents. When they passed him, he picked up the pace and stormed past his rivals to the finish line.
His storied run came just a year after his graduation from Connellsville High, where he had set track records at the school, county, district and state levels. Connellsville business owners helped him obtain an athletic scholarship at Pitt, where he earned a degree in sociology in 1939.
At Pitt, he rewrote the track record book, including three national, collegiate half-mile championships; three IC4A championships in the 440- and 880-yard runs; an American record in the 800-meter run; a world-record, half-mile run at the Cotton Bowl; and an array of school and state honors.
He later donated his Olympic gold medal to Pitt, where it is displayed with his other track medals and his Olympic sweater.
Woodruff earned a master’s degree in sociology from New York University and served in the U.S. Army in World War II and the Korean War. In 1957, he achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel.
He lived in New Jersey for a number of years and spent much of his career in New York, where he taught in the city’s public schools and worked as an investigator for the New York Department of Welfare and as a state parole officer.
“I wish my husband had been there to receive the apology,” Rose Woodruff said. “He would have said, ‘Thank you.’ He was never one to complain. It wasn’t in him to be that kind of person. If he were there, he would have acknowledged the apology and said, ‘I accept it.’ It was beautiful.”
In October 2006, the University of Pittsburgh invited the Woodruffs to a campus event where Woodruff received a formal apology for being left behind as his teammates competed against Navy. He accepted the apology graciously.
“Before he died, we talked. He said he had received an apology from everyone but the Naval Academy. But he wasn’t complaining. He was making a statement,” Rose Woodruff recalled.
Woodruff died Oct. 30, 2007. At 92, he was the last surviving U.S. gold medalist in an individual event from the 1936 Olympics.
Rose Woodruff believes her husband is satisfied with the final apology.
“His favorite piece was ‘It’s a Wonderful World,'” his wife said. “The day when I got home from Annapolis, I turned the TV on and ‘It’s a Wonderful World’ was playing.”