Making a plea:
“This is not just a sport’s story — it’s history,” the great Pittsburgh sportswriter Jim O’Brien told me not long ago. “I believe it should be a Connellsville tradition for teachers, each year, to take their classes out to the stadium, sit under Woodruff’s majestic Olympic Oak and tell two stories — the story of Adolf Hitler — and the story of John Woodruff.” I know no better way to illustrate good triumphing over evil!
Most of us in Connellsville know the story of our Olympic hero, but for those who do not, allow me to capsulate it. John Y. Woodruff was born July 5, 1915, on Reidmore Road in Connellsville, where he was one of 12 children, some of whom died in infancy. The family was very poor, and John came of age during the Great Depression. Before he graduated from Connellsville High School in 1935, he owned school, county, district and state records in track, soon earning the sobriquet “Long John Woodruff” due to his amazing stride.
A few Connellsville businessmen secured the gifted youth a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh, and the grandson of former slaves set out for that big, hazy city with exactly 25 cents in his pocket. No stranger to hard work, Woodruff landed a job as caretaker of the Pitt grounds in exchange for his meals, while meet after meet became gilded stepping stones to the 1936 Olympics, where Hitler had set the stage to prove a “master race.” It was team USA, especially the U.S. track team, who trounced Hitler’s theory of a “master race” before the world.
Woodruff’s phenomenal run for the gold in the 800-meter race was, in itself, history-making. When veteran runners boxed him in, John, not wanting to risk disqualification on a foul, stopped dead on the track, letting everyone pass him, bringing the enormous crowd to its feet with a stereo gasp! Then, on winged feet, he moved two lanes wide to the outside, passed the entire pack and charged for home with his awesome 9-foot stride. He held the lead to the tape in 1:52.9, running a longer race than his competition, breaking the record and copping the gold “for America and for my hometown,” he later told reporters.
Eighty-nine this July, Woodruff is the last surviving U.S. gold medalist in an individual event from that historic Olympics, as well as the only surviving member of the men’s track team. And the Woodruff Olympic Oak is believed to be one of the few surviving gift oaks out of those games.
I cannot help but proclaim how alike Woodruff and his tree are! John triumphed over poverty, racial prejudice and his naïvete in his Olympic race. His sapling oak, like Depression-withered America, made a strong comeback when it returned to John near-dead after being tested for disease by the Agricultural Department in Washington D.C. After all, as I state in my forthcoming book County Chronicles, “Oak Leaves are for Valor.”
I did intense research on Woodruff for a section of the book, and it was no surprise to learn that he served with distinction (in a segregated army) in World War II and again in Korea, where he emerged with the Bronze Star for Valor with oak leaf clusters, completing his military duty in 1975 as a lieutenant colonel.
Since 2002 Woodruff has had to deal with crucial health issues, including the loss of both his legs due to circulation problems. However, throughout his incredible journey, this courageous man has unfailingly treated life’s hurdles as challenges rather than obstacles. When I was asked to deliver a tribute to John at the 20th anniversary “John Woodruff 5-K Run and Walk” in 2002, I checked the dictionary for the definition of the word “champion.” “A champion,” says American Heritage, “is one who wins first place in a competition; one who possesses the attributes of a winner; one who is an ardent defender of a cause … a warrior.” Clearly, John Woodruff qualifies on all four counts, and never more than now. He has met every challenge like a true champion, frequently running against the wind, and always with unwavering courage. His entire life, like his Olympic race, has been a long and admirable one, filled with honor and valor and duty. Too, his life has been a giving one, and Connellsville has benefited from his generosity numerous times. What an inspiration to the youth of our area! What a legacy this great man has bequeathed to us all!
John once said to me that perhaps he was born too soon. As a gold-medalist, there were some offers, a few, even in those early days, but John knew the value of an education, and he could not — would not — risk losing his scholarship at Pitt. My response to him was that he had come along at just the right moment in history with the “Right Stuff” to fulfill a noble destiny. And that legacy must never be forgotten in Connellsville, because we are very much a part of it. Let us, rather, embrace it, nourish it. Let us give this very giving man something in return for the many gifts he has bequeathed to our town — something that, I know for a fact, he wants, before he is no longer with us.
I entreat you, Connellsville Area School Board, to christen the Connellsville field/stadium after John Y. Woodruff. The road leading into the stadium already bears his name, the Woodruff Olympic Oak resides within the stadium perimeters, the Woodruff race is held annually at the stadium; it all makes sense.
I am reminded sharply of a pretty little book of flowers and herbs I have tucked away on a shelf. “Woodruff,” it says, “sweet woodruff is for constancy.” Yes, faithfulness, dependability and, above all, perseverance, the synonyms for constancy, clearly the adjectives for John Woodruff — the stuff of champions!
Fear not, the renaming will not erase the Connellsville name from the field/stadium; it will crown it with its rightful legacy.
I have been told from John’s own lips that he would like to see this final realization of his dream before he dies. Connellsville has a bicentennial in the year 2006, and that would be an ideal moment in time to do this, but we must remember that this man is approaching 90, and waiting for the bicentennial would be a grievous mistake. I think this should be done prior to this July — for John’s birthday and the Woodruff Race.
I have secured, with John’s help, Olympic footage of his phenomenal race. Not an easy task, for the Olympic Committee does NOT part with Olympic footage. The film is in a bank vault, but I would see to its showing for this special event. I do not believe anyone in this town has ever seen John Woodruff’s race, and this is why I secured it for John’s and for my hometown.
I would entreat, too, that another Connellsville legend, Johnny Lujack, be honored in a similar fashion. It is my suggestion that the lane off Falcon Drive, leading into the senior high school be christened “Lujack Lane” with the senior high itself christened the “John Lujack Building.” It is quite common for individual buildings to be christened after great men. This building houses the twin of Lujack’s Heisman Trophy, and it was the site of the 1994 reunion of the 1941-1942 Coker Champions.
John Lujack, the “Connellsville Kid,” emerged from that Coker champion team to take over, his college sophomore year, as quarterback for Notre Dame, helping the Irish to three national titles and establishing a reputation for himself as one of the great T-formation signal-callers in college football history. In his initial start in 1943, he threw for two scores, ran for another, and intercepted to secure a 26-0 victory over Army. He spent nearly three years in the Navy, but returned in time to earn consensus All-American his junior and senior years, in 1946-47, when the “Fighting Irish” did not lose a game.
No slouch as a runner (he also played halfback as a sophomore), Lujack punted, as well — and probably made his greatest individual play on defense. As a junior, he finished third in the Heisman voting behind Army Glenn Davis. As a senior, he earned The Associated Press “Athlete of the Year” Award. Lujack played for four years for the Chicago Bears, leading the team in scoring each year, tying a record with eight interceptions as a rookie, throwing a record 468 yards in one game in 1949 — a new NFL record at the time — and playing in the NFL Pro Bowl his last two seasons. Lujack was an Irish backfield coach for two years following his retirement in 1952. He was elected to the National Football Hall of Fame in 1960, the youngest man ever to be elected. “But nothing compares with being honored in your hometown,” Lujack told me during our telephone interviews. I must share with you this Lujack quote as well: “Always give a hundred percent … then give another ten.”
The name of Johnny Lujack “will forever be linked with the Fayette County community of Connellsville and Notre Dame’s rich sports tradition,” wrote Jim O’Brien in his book Hometown Heroes. “Johnny Lujack is one of those names you like to say aloud, over and over,” lauded O’Brien. The eminent sportswriter continued: “It was an honor to meet him and talk to him. There was an aura about him … He still looked like an athlete … a winner, the way he walked, the way he talked. He had a way with everyone, connecting with teammates, friends and fans … Johnny Lujack is a class act.”
According to O’Brien’s Hometown Heroes: A Pennsylvania congressman presented Lujack, upon his graduation from Connellsville High School, with an appointment to West Point. “It was the first one ever presented to a kid in Connellsville,” Lujack told O’Brien, continuing, “And I considered it a great honor. However, Notre Dame was my first choice, even though I didn’t know if I could get in there. My love affair with Notre Dame began as a youngster, listening to all their games on the radio … When Coach Frank Leahy accepted me … that was all I needed. Like dozens of fellows before and after me, a boyhood dream was about to come true. I would be a part of the great Notre Dame tradition. I never dared hope I would be anything more than a tiny part of that tradition. I knew I was in such fast company … my only ambition then was to make Notre Dame’s traveling squad my junior or senior year.” Jim O’Brien states that Lujack did better than that. Upon graduation, he was heralded as the “Greatest Athlete in Notre Dame History,” the most publicized college football player since Red Grange.
Henry Molinaro’s older brother, “Sal” Molinaro, who resides in South Bend, Ind., only a few blocks from the stadium, is an avid Irish fan. Sal often remarked to family how “Johnny” retained his humility. “At numerous Notre Dame games,” Henry recounted, “Sal, who graduated from Connellsville High School the year after Johnny Lujack, frequently encountered the sports great at the games, sometimes deep in conversation with others; but anytime he noticed Sal, he would always pause and say, ‘Excuse me, there’s a guy from my hometown.’ Then take the time to visit.”
As Jim O’Brien, who wrote about both Woodruff and Lujack in his books Hometown Heroes and The Glory Years, succinctly put it, “Woodruff and Lujack are both proud, so very proud, of their roots. They never seem to forget where they came from. The sun just seems to shine on their faces.”