Pitt Magazine Homepage Table of Contents



To drive from Pittsburgh to Connellsville, Pennsylvania, you travel 50 miles heading southeast. Your destination: a high school football field with its quarter-mile running track. On the edge of this track stands a magnificent oak tree 60 feet high. From time to time people approach the tree, gathering acorns to plant in places where the sport of track and field is revered. They do so because the oak tree in Connellsville is rooted in history, alive with the echoes of the 1936 Olympic Games, of Adolf Hitler, of a theory of Aryan supremacy smashed by black athletes in Berlin Stadium. These athletes include the great sprinter Jesse Owens, of course, and also middle-distance running phenom John Woodruff--the "Black Shadow of Pittsburgh," as author Damon Runyon once dubbed him. A shadow never to be caught.

John Woodruff was born in Connellsville. He is now 80 years of age, retired after a long career working with disadvantaged kids in the New York City area. He is the grandson of Virginia slaves, the son of parents who scratched out a livelihood on rocky Pennsylvania farmland.

Woodruff dropped out of school at age 16. "I tried to get a job in a factory and make some money. They wouldn't hire me. That's one time I'm glad I was rejected because I was black." He returned to school, joined the track team, and displayed his God-given speed and human tenacity by setting a national high school record in the mile.

Awarded a scholarship to Pitt, Woodruff arrived on campus with 25 cents to his name. He hit the books. "I really had to dig." He hit the track. "My technique wasn't that classical. I was just powerful." He also possessed a phenomenal running stride--nine feet in length. He covered a lot of ground.

In his freshman year, Woodruff qualified for the 1936 Olympics in the 800-meter race. On to Berlin--the cynosure, that frenzied season, of world politics and world athletics. Hitler envisioned the games as a showcase of Aryan supremacy: the belief that pure-blooded whites were meant to rule the earth.

In the preliminaries, Woodruff shot to the lead and won easily. In the semi-finals, he followed the same straightforward strategy. Then came the finals, under the gaze of Hitler and 110,000 spectators. "Why I ran the way I did will forever escape me," he says now. Woodruff began at a pace just off the lead. After 400 meters, he realized he was boxed in. He slowed down briefly until he was walking. Then, astonishingly breaking all rhythm, he stopped. Completely. And then it happened. He shifted to an outside lane, last in the pack, and aided by some deity of swiftness, sped past every competitor with his heron-like stride. Only after he won the Gold Medal did he realize a runner had spiked him badly in the knee.

Looking back 60 years, Woodruff remembers it all with emotional sharpness. He remembers his joy on the victory stand as a young German girl handed him an oak sapling, the tree that now towers with glory above a running track in Connellsville. At the right time of day, you can see the tree's oneness with a black shadow--lengthening in perfect stride.

Pitt Magazine Homepage Table of