Grace Butcher was never a household name in the US sportsworld, but she was truly a pioneer who fought hard to put women's distance running on the map where it belonged. Recently though she has been recognized and lauded in Amby Burfoot's latest book,
|Grace Butcher running for the Magyar Athletic Club, Cleveland, OH|
Opening lines of Tag by Grace Butcher
Tag was running as pure as it could be.
When I was "It," I caught them all , almost,
especially the boys who didn't think
a skinny girl like me could run so fast.
I ran them down. An arrow from its bow
could not have gone more straight and clean than I
along that dusty path behind the school.
Grace grew up playing with boys, chemistry sets, getting her feet muddy and wanting to be a runner by the time she was in high school in Chardon, Ohio. She asked the boys' coach if they could have a team. He said he'd get back to her. When he did, the answer was discouraging,. "Even if we had a team , there would be no one to run against". Chardon did not even have a track for its boys' team.
Stella gave Grace a pair of her own spikes to train with, and Grace responded by building her own hurdle to practice over at home. After those practices at the Falcon Club, Grace's mom and Stella would have a beer together. Stella would later drift elsewhere, out to the West Coast and Grace's track fortunes eventually withered but not before winning the hurdles at a national junior AAU meet held in Cleveland.
The last time American women had run that distance was 1928 in the Amsterdam Olympics. Thanks in part to some obtuse reporting by several American journalists including Knute Rockne Pittsburgh Press, correspondent (he coached track at Notre Dame before he was the football coach) William L. Shirer, Chicago Tribune, (author of the bestseller Rise and Fall of the Third Reich) and John R. Tunis (later a popular writer of boys' books), the women's 800 was described as a disaster and included false descriptions of the women finishers in a state of collapse after the race. Pierre DeCoubertin the founder of the modern Olympic movement was once quoted as saying that, "...the role of women in sport should be as in the ancient games, to award the victors. Only the male athlete is capable of great performances." It is reported (though not proven) that Paavo Nurmi collapsed after the 5,000 meters at those games. He definitely fell way off the pace on the last lap as Willi Ritola set an Olympic record. In reality only one woman in that 800 meters fell after a lean at the tape and was on her feet a few seconds later. The first four finishers broke the world record. Who wouldn't be tired? All had run semis the day before, and the second place finisher Kinou Hitomi of Japan, who was primarily a sprinter and long jumper, ran her first ever 800 series and broke the world record. A discussion of this controversy can be seen in Sport in History, 'Not a Very Edifying Spectacle, the Controversial Womens 800 Meter Race in the 1928 Olympics' by Colleen English. Films of the race clearly show that these women ran with a lot of talent, great form, and a boat load of aggressiveness. I have not been able to find some film of the finish of the race (it does exist) however here is a link to a very condensed version of it along with other events. The speed of the film is too fast as you will note. If we can find the better version we will bring it to your attention in this article.
The better version of that 800
|Lina Radke winning the 800 in WR followed by Kinou Hitome of Japan,|
Maybe that success in the 800 was too much for the male ego to absorb and accept. Certanly men were in charge of international athletics in those days as they still seem to be today albeit with a somewhat more enlightened viewpoint. There were no running events for the women except the 100 and 800 and 4x100 relay in 1928. Due to the lack of international events in any sport for women back then, Alice Milliat had formed the Federation Sportive Feminine Internationale (FSFI) and had already hosted several international women's games. But the IOC and IAAF conspired to take any power already acquired away from the FSFI and put women in their place. That lasted until Rome 1960 when the 800 was contested again after 32 years. Even today some people still believe the misrepresented truth about that 1928 Amsterdam 800.
Finally in 1958 that first 880 came to pass in the indoor nationals in Akron, so close to home, and as she lined up for that first nationally sanctioned race, who did she see but Stella Walsh going to the line against her. Grace would win, Stella would finish fourth.
|With her husband and boys. Grace let us know that there was nothing in the pot, just a posed photo op.|
|Julius Penzes, Grace and Les Hegedus|
|Dick Damko , Grace and Julius Penzes at Cleveland West Tech Track|
|Racing the Russians, July, 1959|
Greene, Butcher, Yanvareva, Shavtsova
|Lilane Greene (2:24.9) , Grace Butcher (2:23.9) , Lyubov Yanvareva (2:13.3) and Ludmilla Lysesk Shavtsova (2:11.3)|
USA USSR Meet 1959
Report on US USSR 1959 from Philly.com
When queried by Grace about the lack of coverage of the women in that meet or any meet, Bert Nelson would respond that there weren't enough pages in Track and Field News to include women's events and nobody cared anyway.
During the day, it was 83 degrees fahrenheit and 77% humidity, and we saw for the the effects of heat and dehydration on distance runners as Bob Soth went on an uncontrolled dance midway through the 10,000 meters eventually falling and staggering back to his feet before finally collapsing and being carried off the field on a stretcher. It was remeniscent of the Jim Peters meltdown at the 1954 Empire Commomwealth Games in the marathon.
10,000 meter meltdown 1959
One of the Russians went through a similar dance of his own though he would never have made the call back for the Bolshoi, he still managed to finish. His coaches claimed Max Truex had been lapped and was still back in third place that afternoon. Some of the AAU officials were apparently as confused as the runners and went along with the Russian appeal. Barbara Jones would win the 100 while Wilma Rudolph would pull a muscle in the 100 and limp home fourth, still waiting to be seen as a sports heroine the following year in Rome. Lucinda Williams and Isabelle Daniels would go 1-2 in the 200. Ray Norton would capture both sprints but become the goat in Rome when he would be soundly beaten by Armin Hary, Dave Sime, Figueroa, and Peter Radford and then DQ his team in the 4x100. Dyrol Burleson would outkick Jim Grelle and his Russian opponents in the 1500, Tom Murphy would take the 800. On the women's side the Press sisters and Nina Ponomereva would dominate the hurdles, shot put, and discus. Back on the track for the women's 800 Grace and Liliane were facing two Soviet women whose personal bests were well under the American record and more than ten seconds better than either American lady had run. There would be no Cinderella story about the Americans overcoming incredible odds on the track that day. They had already overcome the odds just being on the track and running 800 meters instead of watching the meet on TV at home, 'running a wash', and fixing a TV dinner while hubby was out playing golf.
What is significant about this meet is that it was televised nationally with the Cold War on the table. The Soviets were seen to win the meet overall due to the weaknesses of the American women's program. Program? What program? The Tennessee Tigerbelles who made up most of the sprints and jumps part of the team only had three meets on their schedule that year. Olga Connolly who would come over to the US after the 1960 Olympics found the US National women's meet an exercise of ineptitude and a farce from an organization stand point. There was no women's program that compared to what was going in on in Europe. How can you go into a meet where the world is watching with only three meets prior? It is noted in American Women's Track and Field , A History 1895-1980, by Louise Mead Tricard that there were only two dozen women's track clubs in the country in the late fifties. There were no women's or girls' teams in high school in anything until Title IX came into effect. Cheerleaders and a kickline were the options for girls or private lessons. But by 1966, the US began meeting a long dormant need, and there were several hundred women's track clubs and a lot of age group activity for pre high school girls. My two co-bloggers Roy Mason and Steve Price were a part of that movement to promote track and field for young girls in the early 1960s. Steve coached the Kettering Striders in Ohio, and Roy coached the Hutchinson Track Club, later the La Mirada Meteors in SoCal.
|A recent photo of Grace Butcher with her horse|
Grace is now 81 years old and I would hesitate to say semi-retired. She lives on the small farm in Northeast Ohio and rides her horse daily while looking after the acreage where she grew up near Chardon.
Her running career did not end with the USA Soviet Union dual meet in 1959. In 1960 she was US indoor champion and an AAU All American and set the US record several times. Her PR was 2:18. Her racing did take a bit of a down turn by the 1960 Olympic Trials in Abeliene, TX where she was suffering from an un-diagnosed stress fracture in her foot from the three a day workout schedule she was enduring with coach Julius Penzes. She took a shot of novacaine from a trainer up in the stands but it wasn't enough to permit her to make an attempt at securing a place on the team. She would heal up and continue however competing locally in road races and eventually in Masters competition. In 1985 she was fourth in the 1500 at the World Masters in Rome and second in the 800 again at the World Masters at Eugene, OR in 1989. In 1996 she set a world Masters mile indoor record in Greensboro, NC. Grace has written articles in Runner's World, Sports Illustrated, Reader's Digest, and Ohio Runner. In 1996 she was Ohio Poet of the Year for her book, Child, House, World published by Hiram College. She is retired from teaching at Kent State Geauga Campus in 1993 as Professor Emeritus.
Regarding the coaching piece at KSU-Geauga, Grace wrote,
"I did love that running program! It was a hoot! Had men and women , young and old,
had gone to State or had never run before, on and on. And it was at a time when the
existence of our tiny campus was in jeopardy; the legislature with collective pen poised
to eliminate an unnecessary expense in the over-built higher ed. of northeastern Ohio.
We had about 200-250 students, all commuters, and from them I started with 5, then
12-15--and went from a club sport to Varsity Cross Country with a 1 PE credit hour.
Ironically, the dean had a big fight to get that PE credit, because I didn't have a degree in PE.
The fact that I had been several times US champion and record holder didn't seem to
qualify me to teach even a fitness jogging class! But reason prevailed, and on we went....".
|Pat Douthat, Jo Ann Abbott, and Grace|
Lilian Greene, Grace's teammate in that Philadelphia 800 would also have an illustrious career completing a Ph.D. and eventually working for UNESCO in Paris.
|Back in Training|
Les Hegedus click here to read that article.
That reminded me of an encounter I had had with Grace about 1979 in Muncie, IN when I was a grad student at Ball State's Human Performance Lab and Grace had been invited to speak on her poetry by the BSU English department. That morning Grace and several of the guys from the lab and I went for a 5 mile run in a blinding snowstorm. Afterwards we were entertained by her poetry reading, and I still remember that it centered around a poem called Cycle Song that talked about her motorcylce experiences. Quite a turn from her track and field days. I wasn't quite prepared for that.
Other sources for this article were:
"Collapse of a 30-Year Hoax" by Julia Chase-Brand, MD , PhD, Marathon and Beyond, March/April, 2015.
"Remembering Stella Walsh" by Grace Butcher, The Ohio Runner, July 1987.
Quote of Pierre De Coubertin from film documentary '1914-1918 Le Sport a l'Eprouve de Feu'
What a great article George ! You may have outdone your self this time.......the pics were wonderful...... got Les in there. too plus a bit about Alex Ferenzi the debonair Hungarian coach. When I went to Moscow in 74' , Alex had a few phone #'s from his little black book for me to call. Alex got around and was a real charmer. If not mistaken, I think he worked as a designer/builder of racing wheelchairs in Cleveland. He was one of the REAL pioneers and a good guy........He had that same "grab your shoulder, look you square in the eye" confrontation as Lazlo Tabori. Never sure they knew each other..maybe.