(b. 4 August 1909 in Atlanta, Kansas; d. 10 March 1988 in Menifee, Arkansas), two-time U.S. Olympic track and field team member who set collegiate, national, and world records after overcoming serious physical challenges.
Cunningham was one of seven children born to Henry Clint and Rosa (Moore) Cunningham. In February 1917 he and an older brother, Floyd, started a fire in the potbellied stove at the Sunflower Schoolhouse, lighting what they thought was kerosene, and causing the building to became engulfed in flames. As Cunningham recalled, "In-credibly, both of us … ran two miles to our home after trying to put out the fire in our clothing. When we arrived, we took off Floyd's shoes and put them on a small sled outside the door, and the fire remaining consumed both the sled and the shoes."
The fuel can had actually contained gasoline. Floyd died nine days later, and flames left the younger Cunningham so badly injured that doctors recommended leg amputation. His parents didn't acquiesce, and when the bandages were removed, his right leg was nearly three inches shorter than the left. Both of his arches were damaged, and the toes were nearly burned off his left foot. Local folklore still recalls the boy's determination to walk, steadying himself on a plow as his mother watched from inside the house. "As long as you believe you can do things," Cunningham said in a 1970s interview, "they're not impossible. You place limits on yourself mentally, not physically."
Although the Cunningham family left Kansas to work melon and hay fields in Colorado, they returned to their home state in 1922. Cunningham attended high school in Elkhart, where he participated in football, basketball, and track, sang in the glee club, and studied the violin. He helped his mother take in washing and his father clean manure out of barns. Before each track meet, he required an extensive massage and an hour-long warm-up period; this pre-race routine continued throughout his entire track and field career.
As a high school senior Cunningham won one-mile runs, state-level outdoor races, and the National Interscholastic meet in Chicago, where, during his last high school race, he set a world prep record of 4:24.7 for the mile. At Kansas University he garnered six Big Six mile-run titles and two National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) titles. He also earned ten Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) national titles throughout the 1930s, five of which were in the outdoor one-mile.
In 1932 Cunningham broke the American one-mile record (4:11.1), won the NCAA 1500-meter event, and placed fourth in the 1500-meter race at the Los Angeles Olympics. The following year, 1933, was a banner year; Cunningham won the coveted Sullivan Award as the country's top amateur athlete after winning the NCAA mile (4:09.8) and the AAU 800- and 1500-meter and setting a 4:06.7 world mile record at the Princeton Invitational Meet. Later that year the city of Elkhart celebrated Glenn Cunningham Day when he returned from Europe after winning eleven straight races. In 1934 Cunningham finished his B.A. in physical education at the University of Kansas.
Cunningham competed in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany, when 43 percent of the American population favored an Olympic boycott because of the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler's ideologies (Gallup Poll, 1935). Nevertheless, 384 Americans competed, including Jesse Owens, who won four gold track and field medals. Cunningham came home with a silver medal in the 1500-meter (3:48.4). He ran hard in the third lap, but Jack Loveland of New Zealand set a world record of 3:47.8. Cunningham was both disappointed and pleased with his silver medal: it was not gold, but he had broken the previous Olympic record. That same year he set an 800-meter world record of 1:49.7 and graduated from the University of Iowa with an M.A. in physical education.
In 1938 Cunningham boasted twelve of the fastest thirty-one track records, completed his Ph.D. in physical education at New York University, and was invited by Dartmouth College to test their new high-banked indoor track. There, he was described as "less the lissom runner, with his heavy stride and wide-thick shoulders, than a powerful blocking back or a nimble hodcarrier." Flanked by six Dartmouth runners, Cunningham completed his race at 4:04:4, "two full seconds faster than any other man had ever run the distance at any time," making the one-mile the "glamour event at indoor meets." While this race was unsanctioned, Cunningham's time wasn't surpassed until 1955.
After teaching physical education at Cornell University from 1940 to 1944, Cunningham joined the navy. There he attained the rank of lieutenant, established physical training programs at the Great Lakes and San Diego stations, and toured military hospitals to encourage the wounded. Cunningham had married Margaret Speir in August 1934 and they divorced in 1946; the following year, he married his second wife, Ruth Sheffield. Over the course of the two marriages Cunningham fathered twelve children.
He and Ruth helped thousands of troubled youth over a thirty-year span. They housed them at their 840-acre exotic animal ranch near Wichita, Kansas, and scrimped on personal expenses, going without a car for five years. At times they were almost close to broke but were eventually assisted by a nonprofit group called the Glenn Cunningham Youth Ranch. Cunningham went on lecture tours to raise money. He advocated discipline (errant teens got "backsides burned with [my] belt") along with love and warned others not to let "any pig-headed psychologist tell you different."
Cunningham donated land in Arkansas for another youth ranch, this one called Glenhaven in his honor. He died of a heart attack at the age of seventy-eight. Memorial services were conducted in Conway, Arkansas, and his body was cremated.
Cunningham, nicknamed "Iron Horse of Kansas," was inducted into the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1961 and the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in Charleston, West Virginia, in 1974. He was named outstanding track performer of Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1978 and was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame and the Kansas State High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame in 1979 and 1983, respectively.
While Cunningham's track and field accomplishments, from the collegiate level to Olympian, were remarkable, his ability to overcome challenges was even more noteworthy. Besides being an outstanding athlete, he was well known for his principles and convictions. His status as role model and his contributions to the development of youth are considered among his finest achievements.
Cunningham's autobiography is Never Quit (1981). See also F. Glen Lloyd, "He Puts Kids on the Right Track," Today's Health 46, no. 12 (Dec. 1968) and "When Cunningham of Kansas Runs, He Clocks Himself by His Stride," the Kansas City Times (12 Mar. 1938). A front-page article serving as an obituary is in the Tri-State News (Elkhart, Kan., 17 March 1988).
Kelly Boyer Sagert