Countdown to London Olympics: Brooklyn man recalls being on world stage in 1948
BY PATRICK LEONARD
Ask Curtis Stone if he expects to watch the Summer Olympics inLondon, and he nods affirmatively.
But, ask him about the last time the Olympics were held inLondon, and his eyes light up the room.
The 89-year-oldBrooklynnative and former school teacher was near the top of his game in 1948, when he entered Wembley Stadium to take on the world’s best in the 5,000 meters.
Growing up inBrooklyn, the oldest son of Dan and Ethel Stone said he knew from an early age that he had the ability to run very quickly.
“I could always outrun everybody,” Stone said recently with a smile. “I was good at other sports too. But I dislocated my shoulder in a football game, and I had an astigmatism that went undiagnosed, so it was hard for me to hit a baseball. But we had a track team.”
Stone got his first taste of track as a 13-year-old during the 1936 Summer Olympics inBerlin.
While the rest of the world was captivated by the exploits of sprinter Jesse Owens, Stone vividly remembers sitting by the radio, listening as another American, Glenn Cunningham, ran to a silver medal in the 1500 meter run, losing by eight-tenths of a second to Jack Lovelock ofNew Zealand.
“That was something,” Stone says now. “I was upset he (Cunningham) didn’t win but that was a great race. I guess he was my inspiration.”
Stone put that inspiration to good use when he began running atBrooklynHigh Schoolin the spring of 1938.
High school track and field was a little different in those days whenNew Milfordwas actually the only one ofSusquehannaCounty’s 22 high schools to support a “real” track team, Stone explained.
Schools did not have a racing season, but simply a county meet held every spring. School principal Charles Berilla served asBrooklyn’s coach.
Stone was the Susquehanna County champion in the half-mile as a senior in 1940. That year he also was the District Champion and finished sixth in the PIAA State Meet inState College.
“I ran in seven track meets total in high school,” Stone said.
According to Brooklyn High classmate Martha Otto (now Girton), there was a person close to Stone who was a pretty fair runner in her own right.
“Curtis was a nice boy but I honestly don’t remember him being a runner,” Girton said. “But I do remember his (future) wife Margaret. I was tall and slender so everyone thought I was fast. We would be running at track practice and Margaret would zip right by me.”
The boys, however, remembered Stone differently.
Harold Ely, 93, of Montrose, graduated four years ahead of Stone atBrooklyn, and his brother Stewart beat him in the half mile at the district meet in 1938.
Ely recalled recently, “During the (1948) Olympics, there were a few local boys who remembered beating Curtis in high school. The truth is that they quit running. Curtis never gave up.”
After graduating second in a class of 12 students fromBrooklyn, Stone enrolled at Pennsylvania State College.
On the advice of a friend he tried out for the cross country team.
“There were no scholarships; I didn’t even know what cross country was,” Stone remarked.
Prior to that, the farthest race he knew from high school was the half-mile. “In looking back, I realize that wasn’t even enough for me to get warmed up,” he laughed.
RegardingPennState, Stone said, “Our coaches were Chick Werner and Bob Greaves. After about a week or so of practice they said to me, ‘You’re going to be great.’ I had no idea what they were talking about.”
Stone proved that his coaches had an eye for talent, placing sixth in the prestigious IC4A (Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletes of America) meet his freshman year. He followed his successful rookie season with a victory in the IC4A meet, and in 1942 he helped lead thePennStatecross country team to a national championship.
It was during that same year, however, that his running career and his studies had to be put on hold when he left school to serve his country during World War II.
Stone served in the 8th Army Air Force with the 95th Bombardment Group out ofHorham,England. He worked mainly as a clerk in the finance office with the responsibility of making sure the officers received their pay.
Tragically, his younger brother Bryce, a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps, was killed in action.
“He was a good runner too,” Stone says of his brother. “He ran his freshman year atPennState. He really wanted to be a pilot.”
Stone admitted that during his time of service, the workout regimen of many of his comrades was well below what he was used to as a varsity athlete atPennState.
“No one was exercising,” Stone said. “My mom sent me my track clothes so I could train. I found a little path in Horham, about 200 yards long, and I ran up and down that path for my workouts.”
Stone was able to run in a track meet inCambridgein 1944 but there was another event that year in which he wishes he would have had the opportunity to compete.
In 1939, the International Olympic Committee had voted to hold the 1944 Summer Olympics inLondon,England. And being in the country during the war, Stone said the games were clearly on his mind.
“However, the 1944 Olympics were cancelled, obviously, because of the war,” Stone pointed out.
“But I was in my prime then. I was 21 years old at the time and I really feel like that could have been my best Olympics,” he noted.
At the conclusion of the war Stone returned toPennStateto resume his studies and his running.
He graduated with a degree in journalism but not before winning the IC4A Championships three more times and running to a second place finish at the NCAA Championships.
His was an outstanding college career, attaining levels of success that many athletes can only dream about. It could have been a fitting time to hang up the track spikes and pursue less physically exhaustive ventures.
But for Curtis Stone, most of his running highlights were still in front of him.
He well knew that if he were to make it to the 1948 Olympics, he would still have to prove himself one more time at the U.S. Olympic Trials, held on July 9 at Dyche Stadium in Evanston, Ill.
As Stone and Jerry Thompson, the pride of theUniversityofTexas, had finished 1-2 in both the 1947 and 1948 Amateur Athletic Union meets, some have argued that there was little surprise when they duplicated this feat in the Olympic Trials.
Stone captured a Trial Record time of 14:40.7 in the 5000 meters, just a half second ahead of Thompson. In third place was Clarence Robinson of Brigham Young.
The surprise was that Horace Ashenfelter, Stone’s younger teammate atPennStateand for whom thePennStateindoor track presently honors, finished a distant fifth, some 19 seconds behind Stone.
He felt badly for his teammate, but the main thing for Stone was that he had won the right to compete inLondonand he knew that he had just 24 days to get ready for the race of his life.
Brooklyn, Pa., native Curtis Stone represented the U.S. in London in the 5,000 meters in 1948. Over the next three weeks, we’ll look at what he did to get there, and what followed.
*Today looks at Stone’s emergence from obscurity to winning an Olympic Trial.
*Our Aug. 1 issue looks at three weeks of prepping for the big meet and the race itself.
*Our Aug. 8 issue looks at what Stone did for an encore, and how distance running has changed.