Black gold medalist at '36 Olympics dies in F.H. - East Valley Tribune: News

Black gold medalist at '36 Olympics dies in F.H.

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Posted: Thursday, November 1, 2007 3:48 pm | Updated: 5:52 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

PHOENIX - John Woodruff, who joined Jesse Owens as black Americans who won gold medals in the face of Adolf Hitler and his "master race" agenda at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, has died at an assisted living center near Phoenix.

Woodruff died Tuesday at a center in Fountain Hills, said Rose Woodruff, his wife of 37 years. He was 92.

"I was at his bedside at the time he passed," she said in an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday. "We were holding hands, and he slept away peacefully."

Woodruff, nicknamed "Long John" for his lengthy stride, was a lanky 21-year-old freshman at Pittsburgh when he sailed to the Olympics and into a racially charged scene.

On Aug. 4, 1936, he won the 800 meters using one of the most astonishing tactics in Olympic history. Boxed in by the pack of slow-paced runners, he literally stopped in his tracks, then moved to the third lane and passed everyone.

"I didn't panic," Woodruff told The New York Times in 2005. "I just figured if I had only one opportunity to win, this was it. I've heard people say that I slowed down and almost stopped. I didn't almost stop. I stopped, and everyone else went around me."

The U.S. athletes in Berlin were given oak tree saplings, and Woodruff planted in his hometown of Connellsville, Pa.

"It now towers over 80 feet," Mrs. Woodruff said.

Owens and Woodruff remained close friends.

"In fact, Jesse was in our wedding," Mrs. Woodruff said.

There were 10,000 people to greet him when he returned to his hometown from Europe, according to an Associated Press account from the time.

"He was happy to bring the honor to the country. That was No. 1," Mrs. Woodruff said, "and then to his family and the community where he lived."

Woodruff twice served in the Army, during World War II, then the Korean War. He left the active service in 1957 as a Lt. Colonel but remained in the Army reserves.

According to the National African American Registry, Woodruff commanded two battalions, one of them integrated, and was executive officer for five artillery battalions.

Woodruff had many jobs over his long life.

He worked for the New York City Children's Aid Society, and was as a teacher, parole officer, welfare investigator and recreation center director for the New York City Police Athletic League. Along the way, he volunteered as an official at many track meets, including the Penn Relays.

He and his wife moved to Arizona in 2000. Diabetes led to amputation of his once-powerful legs in 2003.

A grandson of slaves, Woodruff was born on July 5, 1915, one of 12 children of Silas and Sarah Woodruff. He won three consecutive national 880-yard titles and the national AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) 880 championship in 1939.

He earned a sociology degree from Pittsburgh in 1939 and a masters degree in the same subject from New York University in 1941.

Besides his wife Rose, he is survived by a son John Jr. of Brooklyn, N.Y.; and daughter Randilyn Gilliam of Chicago; five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Fountain View Village Independent Chapel. Mrs. Woodruff said her husband's ashes at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis. Later, a memorial service will be held near that oak tree in Connellsville.

"He had a wonderful life," Mrs. Woodruff said. "John was a good man, a good person and had a lot of integrity and very strong character."

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