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October 13, 2011

Woodruff’s Olympic medal

goes on display

Woodruf-Olympic medalSeventy-five years after John Woodruff became the first African American in the 1936 Summer Olympics to win a gold medal, the symbol of his accomplishment is being showcased in a prominent new display. The medal will be unveiled in a ceremony at 2 p.m. tomorrow, Oct. 14, on the first floor of Hillman Library.

Woodruff, who earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology at Pitt in 1939, had just completed his freshman year when he won the medal in the 800-meter race in what became known as the Hitler Olympics in Berlin. His victory, along with the gold medal performances of other African-American athletes, embarrassed Chancellor Adolf Hitler, who had intended the games to demonstrate the Nazi ideals of Aryan superiority and athletic prowess.

Woodruff had set track records at Connellsville High School as well as at the county, district and state levels and attended Pitt on an athletic scholarship.

His victory came in an unconventional way. Boxed in by other runners, he stopped to let them pass, then came from behind to win.

Woodruff, who died in 2007 at age 92, donated his Olympic medal to Pitt decades ago. For many years, the medal was displayed in a simple frame, accompanied by a photo of Woodruff — but no information — on the library’s ground floor.

Rush Miller, University Library System director and Hillman librarian, said Woodruff insisted on having the medal displayed in the library.

“He refused to let the University put it anywhere but the library,” Miller said, recounting that Woodruff wanted large numbers of students to be able to see it and that he didn’t want it to be thought of as an athletic achievement so much as he wanted it to be remembered in the context of its social and historic implications. “He was very proud of the history of it,” Miller said.

Beyond its immeasurable historic value, the medal itself — made of nearly pure gold — has been appraised at a quarter-million dollars. “It’s irreplaceable,” Miller said.

The medal will turn in a custom-made lighted wood-and-glass case that will feature a video panel on which viewers can watch footage of Woodruff’s historic win. The heavy display case is bolted to the floor, connected to a police alarm and made of bulletproof glass.

“It’s the securest thing in the library,” Miller said.

— Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 44 Issue 4

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