By Allen Ballard
My lifelong hero, “Long John” Woodruff, is dead (New York Times, Nov. 1, 2007).
When the black children in my 1930’s neighborhood raced in the schoolyard, the winner would have the right to be called “Long John” for the whole day, and that was a real honor considering that John Woodruff had won the 1936 Olympic 800-meter title and race after race at our Penn Relays in Philadelphia. His name was one with that of Joe Louis, Paul Robeson, and Jesse Owens, African-American athletes leading us out of the dark night of segregation.
In my freshman year in high school, the cross-country coach, noting my tall and lanky frame, persuaded me to come out for the team by saying I might be “the next Long John Woodruff.” The coach’s hope was misplaced indeed for I decided, after finishing dead last and almost being lapped by the city champion in my very first race, that distance running and me didn’t mix -- football beckoned instead!
Years later, I found myself living in the same New Jersey housing development as Long John Woodruff. He was a walker then, reduced by bad knees to using a cane. But he was still tall and lean, carrying himself with the almost noble bearing of his youth, and his stride was that of a giant. One day, early in the morning, while out jogging, I saw him in the distance, about a quarter of a mile in front of me. I quickened my pace and childhood memories flooded my mind -- I was racing against my idol, “Long John.” I moved closer to him, then passed him with a short burst of speed before stopping and falling back beside him.
“Mr.Woodruff,” I said. “Guess what, when I passed you, I said to myself, 'I beat him, I beat Long John!'”
Long John, a devout Christian and a deacon and Sunday School teacher in the Baptist Church that I sometimes attended, smiled down on me, shook his head in bemusement, and then, without missing a stride, said, “It’s alright, son, we all need something to help us through the day. You just hold to this little victory of yours!” We both laughed then, and I ran on, leaving him to enjoy his solitude out there on the road.
Perhaps he was thinking back on those moments back in 1936, when he and Jesse had almost single-handedly, before the eyes of Hitler and the whole watching world, destroyed --once and for all-- the myth of Aryan superiority.
As for me, I still love to tell the story of that day I beat “Long John” Woodruff.
Allen Ballard, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Kenyon College, received his Ph.D. in Government from Harvard University. Currently a professor of history and Africana Studies at the University at Albany, SUNY, he is the author of “Where I'm Bound,” a novel about African-American troops during the Civil War.