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A Quiet Legacy of Greatness: On the centennial of his birth, Barney Ewell is remembered as one of Penn State’s all-time best athletes

by on February 01, 2018 11:03 AM

Last November, Lancaster Online published a story, “Four Things About Lancaster County’s History You Might Not Know.” One of the four was “Olympian’s grave in Lancaster County.” “The only Lancastrian ever to win an Olympic gold medal,” Barney Ewell is buried in Conestoga Memorial Park.

Sadly, it seems fitting that Ewell would be mentioned in that story since he also is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, athlete in Penn State history, yet his accomplishments aren’t as well-known as those of famous Nittany Lion football or basketball players or wrestlers. He also could have become one of the most famous and decorated track stars in U.S. history, but when he was in his prime, the Olympic Games of 1940 and 1944 were cancelled because of World War II. Four years later, however, Ewell was finally able to compete in the 1948 Olympics, and he took home two silvers and a gold.

February 25 marks the 100th anniversary of Ewell’s birth. He died in April 1996 at the age of 78. After Ewell’s death, Bill Lyon, a sports columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote that Ewell “probably would have been the most decorated Olympian in the history of the games” had he been able to compete. In the fall of 2010, Town&Gown put together a panel that ranked the 20 greatest athletes in Penn State history. Ewell came in second behind former football player Mike Reid.

“I believe Barney Ewell is Penn State’s greatest athlete for what he accomplished while in school and later in the Olympics,” says Penn State sports historian Lou Prato, who was a member of the panel.

Prato points out that Ewell also was a three-time intramural boxing champion. And, during a ceremony in 1997 at Penn State honoring Ewell, Herman Goffberg, a teammate of Ewell’s, said that Ewell was a two-time intramural badminton champion.

But it was on the track where Ewell was at his best. He was a member of Penn State’s track team from 1939 to 1942. In a meet against Pittsburgh during his freshman year, Ewell, on a rain-soaked and muddy track, broke three freshman records. One staff writer for the Daily Collegian wrote after the meet, “I saw the super-charged Mr. Ewell streak to a new mark of 9.7 seconds in the hundred. I saw him splash his way (ankle-deep in water) to a new freshman record of 21.3 seconds in the 220. I saw him fly 24 feet 1 ½ inches to set a new broad jump standard. And I was amazed.”

Ewell continued to amaze many. He won 12 gold medals and championships in collegiate meets, and another 11 in AAU meets. He set or tied world records on six different occasions in the 50-, 60-, and 200-yard runs. He won the IC4A outdoor 100-yard and 220-yard runs and long jump in three consecutive years from 1940 through 1942. At the NCAA Championships, he won both the 100-yard and 200-yard titles in 1940 and 1941.

In the summer of 1942, Ewell was drafted into the Army and served his country until the end of World War II. He returned to Penn State to complete his degree in physical education. After graduating, he returned to Lancaster to train for the 1948 Olympics. Given his age, he wasn’t expected to make the U.S. team.

“He was 30 years old with a wife and a child,” Prato says. “That’s not just old for a sprinter, that’s like being an aging grandfather with chronic aches and pains.”

But at the U.S. trials, Ewell ran the 100 in 10.2 seconds, the exact same time as Jesse Owen’s world-record time at the 1936 Olympics.

At the Olympics in London, Ewell thought he had edged out U.S. teammate Harrison Dillard to win the gold medal in the 100-meter dash. But it was determined that Dillard had finished a tenth of a second ahead of Ewell.

Curt Stone, a member of the U.S. team and also a teammate of Ewell’s at Penn State, told the New York Times, “Barney was all class. He promptly turned, went over to Dillard, and congratulated him warmly.”

Ewell earned another silver in the 200, losing to Mel Patton in another close race, and then won a gold as a member of the 400-meter relay team.

The class Ewell showed in defeat was indicative of the man he was.

“Although he was soft-spoken with a laid-back personality, Barney had a lot of influence on the few black students, not just athletes, at Penn State in that period (1938-48),” Prato says. “They admired how he handled himself during a time when racism was prevalent in State College.”

Tori Pyle, assistant curator for Lancaster History, says Ewell’s legacy lives on through his influence among his family, friends, and fellow athletes.

“I am most inspired by Ewell’s service to his Lancaster community after his impressive athletic career,” she says. “He volunteered throughout Lancaster, including at the Boys Club, and worked with and mentored athletes, in particular in the southeast of Lancaster where he grew up.”

In 1986, Ewell was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame. In a 1994 interview with Town&Gown, he said the induction was the accomplishment he treasured most. He struggled with his health during his later years and had both legs amputated due to circulatory problems. According to his obituary in The New York Times, complications from those amputations ultimately led this death.

His hometown of Lancaster is planning a special event in honor of the 100th anniversary of his birth. While Ewell may not be as famous as other former Penn State athletes or international track stars, those who knew him or know of his story believe he holds a special place in the history books.

“Unfortunately, Barney and his significant place in Penn State’s history is virtually unknown to the hundreds of thousands of living Penn Staters, let alone outsiders,” Prato says. “… There isn’t even a historical marker on campus honoring Barney and his accomplishments, except for the display in the Penn State All-Sports Museum.

“Frankly, Barney is one of the few Penn State athletes who deserves a statue. He would be my No. 1 choice.”

David Pencek is a freelance writer in State College and communications manager for Schlow Centre Region Library.

 



David Pencek is editor of Town&Gown magazine, Town&Gown's Penn State Football Annual, and Town&Gown's Penn State Winter Sports Annual.
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