Saturday, August 20, 2016

V 6 N. 58 Grace Butcher, One of America's Legends in Women's Track and Field

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

First Ladies of Running: 22 Inspiring Profiles of the Rebels, Rule Breakers, and Visionaries Who Changed the Sport Forever

 Grace had to overcome almost total indifference to women's running when she was a teenager just after WWII, then set her dreams aside for almost ten years before finally winning the right to compete like men had always been able to compete at distances greater than 220 yards.  Her life did not  stop with success in the world of running,  she became a poet, a professor, a motorcycle racer and writer, an actress, a coach and an example  of independence and self fulfillment in a world that is still reluctant to grant women the rights that men assume the moment they pop out of the womb and head down the street.

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.

Hide and Seek

In the time it took to count to 100, we could have run to the end of the world.
But we never trusted the one who was "It,"
rushing the numbers in slurred clusters,
counting by two's, or worse, by five's,
or peeking around the tree that was  goal
to watch us disperse in the guerrilla warfare
of chldhood.  Who was the  fastest?  The smartest?
Who was the stealthiest of us all?

It was always me.  I could slip into 
the most unlikely spaces:  the cobwebby hole 
under the porch, the prickly corridor
between haybales in the stiffling loft.
I could hold my breath forever
behind the open door of the outhouse
or gently edge under the horse's belly
to bed down in his manger like a parody of Jesus.
Nobody ever found me anywhere.

And when I spied poor "It" go by, 
I'd shed my cloak of invisibility,
run for goal , my thin legs flashing
in the golden afternoon as if I were
all the wild horses in the world.
Galloping "home" I chanted my victory cry:
"N'yah, n'yah n'y n'yah n'yah!"
and hugging the tree I was safe.

Reaching the goal was so easy then.
I didn't know I was safer there
than I'd ever be again.

Fortunately Grace had an incredible mom who tracked down a club, the Polish Falcon Club in Cuyahoga Heights forty miles away where Grace could get some coaching from Stella Walsh, the Polish Olympic 100 meter champion in 1932.  This was well before the days of suburban soccer moms, personal trainers,  and interstate highways.  Forty miles each way on two lane country roads.  What a mom!  Mom wouldn't commit to travel every night but a couple of nights a week for over a month that Spring of 1949, the two  made the trip.  Stella couldn't train Grace for the the mile, her preference, there was no mile for girls then, so she became a sprinter, hurdler and broad jumper.

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.

Selected lines from Red Rover
Grace Butcher

When the recess bell hurled us 
onto the playground
and the choosing began,
even before we started,
my heart was pumping me up,
making me faster than anyone,
my tight braids, my scrawny body
electric with excitement.


Then through the crackling air, 
my name!  "Red Rover, Red Rover,
let Gracie come over!"
And I received it with unholy rapture,
knowing who I was and what I could do.

I sprinted in ecstasy
across that shimmering concrete,
everything I would ever be
compressed into the sound of those steps
echoing forty years into the future.

With all my skinny violence
I crashed through those fiercely clasped hands,
broke apart that tight line of friends,
and took one back with me, captive,
to be on my side forever.

After high school  her brief running career came to a near  halt as she attended Baldwin Wallace College.  She went to Baldwin Wallace, because she could train there over the same hurdles that Harrison Dillard had trained on.   But before the year was over she would run off and get married in Louisiana where her husband to be  was stationed in the Army.  Years later she was back at it in the running world, getting hooked up with the Hungarian refugees who had migrated to Cleveland after the 1956 anti-Soviet uprising in their country and were part of the Magyar Athletic Club.  Alex Ferenczy and Julius Penzes were her coaches.  Grace finally got training to run middle distances and then in 1957 began lobbying to get an 880 yard race sanctioned by the AAU.  It took a lot of letter writing and  phone calls by Grace and Alex and others to eventually lead to a national AAU meet putting the 880 into its program.

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.
Amsterdam 1928

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)

 If we travel back to a hot weekend in July, 1959 to Franklin Field in Philadelphia when Grace was lining up with Lilian Greene to face  off with two very experienced Russian middle distance runners, we might remember more readily some of the events of that track meet  and that time.  The civil rights movement was in its infancy; the French were still in Viet Nam.  Paul Anka's 'Lonely Boy' was at the top of the charts.  Sylvester Stallone was 13 years old.   The Cold War was on the upswing.  The previous year the Russians and Americans had met each other in the Soviet Union and the American men had prevailed against a strong Soviet team, and the US women had been hopelessly trounced by the Soviet women, giving the Eastern Bloc comrades the combined score win over the Americans.  Of course the American press poopooed and downplayed the importance of the women's team in general and blamed them for the overall loss.  Track and Field News would hardly even mention that the women competed those two  afternoons in 1959.
USA USSR Meet 1959

Report on US USSR 1959 from

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 

Also of note is Grace raced motorcycles from 1973 to 1993 and wrote extensively for Rider magazine.  Her list of accomplishments goes well beyond what is documented above.

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

The seeds for this article came when visiting Les Hegedus in 2013 in Cleveland.  Going through his scrapbook we saw several pictures of Grace and a poem she had written for Les.

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.

Poems by Grace in this article are from Child, House, World  by Grace Butcher, Hiram Poetry Review Supplement Number 12,  1991.

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'

George Brose

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. 


Wilfred Schnier said...

The difference between 1959 & 1972 was enormous. From 1972-80 the difference was just as great for women's sports. Hats off to Steve Price, Roy Mason, Julius Penzes, and Coach Ed Temple at TSU for filling a void.

Anonymous said...

Fabulous!! Just fabulous.

V 8 N. 52 Some Kids are Really Showing the Veterans a New Twist on the Sport

Youth is having its day.    Mondo  Duplantis in the polevault is setting the world on its ear with his elite jumping.  Now the Ingebrigtsen...