Ewell, Henry Norwood ("Barney")

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EWELL, Henry Norwood ("Barney")

(b. 25 February 1918 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania; d. 4 April 1996 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania), sprinter who tied the world record in the 100-meter race at the U.S. Olympic Trials in 1948, and won a gold medal in the 400-meter relay at the 1948 London Olympics at the age of thirty.

Born to a poor family in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Ewell had strongly muscled legs, a "half-moon" smile, and a notably pleasant and easygoing personality. While still in high school in Lancaster, he won the U.S. junior sprint title for 1936, and followed this with a stellar career on the track team at Pennsylvania State University.

While at Penn State, Ewell was a nine-time All-American. He won the long jump and the 100- and 220-yard dashes in three consecutive years of the Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletes of America (IC4A) championships; no athlete before him had even won the events two years in a row. In 1940 and 1941 he won back-to-back National College Athletic Association (NCAA) championships in both the 100- and 200-meter races. He was the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) outdoor 100-meter champion in 1941, 1945, and 1948, and the 200-meter champion in 1939, 1946, and 1947. From 1940 through 1942 he won the long jump at the IC4A outdoor meet; he also won the indoor long jump in 1940 and 1942, and the AAU indoor long jump in 1944 and 1945.

On the mostly white Penn State campus, the African-American Ewell stood out, but not only because of his race and his athletic talent. He was well known on campus for his friendly manner, personal charm, and sense of humor. John Lucas, an Olympic historian and professor of exercise and sport science who was a track and field coach for Penn State, said of Ewell, "He was as poor as a church mouse. He had not had any money and yet he was an upbeat, joy-filled guy."

When the 1940 and 1944 Olympics were canceled due to World War II, Ewell was forced to wait until he was well past his athletic prime to compete again. Most sprinters are in their prime in their twenties; Ewell won his Olympic medals at age thirty, a notable achievement that has made track fans wonder what he would have done if he could have competed at a world level earlier. The war also disrupted Ewell's education; he postponed his 1942 graduation from Penn State so that he could enlist in the U.S. Army in 1941. When asked what division of the army he wanted to be in, he said, joking, "Any one but the cavalry because if we get in trouble and have to run, I don't want the horses to get in my way." He served with distinction until 1945, and returned to competition and college when the war was over, eventually graduating from Penn State with a B.S. degree in 1947.

At the 1948 AAU championship, which was also the trial for the 1948 Olympics, Ewell tied the world record of 10.2 in the 100-meter dash. At the Olympics, in the 100-meter race, Ewell and sprinter Harrison Dillard sped across the finish line in a dead heat. Ewell, so convinced that he had won, jumped up and down, exulting. The officials, however, were not convinced, and had to study photos of the finish in order to determine who had won—the first time this technique, now common in sports, was used in the Olympics. When they awarded the win to Dillard, Ewell, with characteristic dignity, walked over and congratulated him. Three days later, in the 200-meter dash, Ewell and Mel Patton recorded identical 21.1-second times for the event. Again, the gold medal went to Patton, and Ewell again graciously congratulated the winner.

Ewell was not originally slated to run on the 400-meter relay team, but when member Ed Conwell became sick, he was chosen to fill in. The team won easily, but the changeover between Ewell and teammate Lorenzo Wright was ruled to have occurred out of the exchange zone, and the U.S. team was disqualified. The team protested, and the Olympic Jury of Appeal viewed a film of the changeover. They found that the baton pass was made correctly, the ruling was reversed, and Ewell finally received Olympic gold, to go along with his two silver medals.

In honor of his Olympic achievements, his hometown of Lancaster awarded Ewell a house and car. The track authorities said that acceptance of these gifts made Ewell a professional athlete, one who competed for pay. At the time, only amateur athletes, those who received no money from their sport, were allowed to compete, so Ewell was barred from further Olympic competition. After being barred, Ewell competed in Australia and New Zealand as a professional athlete. Later in his life, he worked for an electric company in Lancaster.

In the early 1990s, Ewell, who suffered from poor circulation, fought against increasing health problems. He lost several toes, and in 1993 had his right leg amputated below the knee after his veins became infected. In 1995 his left leg was amputated above the knee. At the time he was living in Conestoga View, a nursing home in Lancaster, and used a wheelchair or crutches to get around. Despite his health problems and limited mobility, he remained optimistic and often joked and laughed with visitors.

Herman Goffberg, a teammate of Ewell's while they were both at Penn State, visited Ewell in the early 1990s and was upset by Ewell's poverty. He organized a fund-raising effort that eventually brought in $16,000 from Ewell's friends and fans, money that allowed Ewell to live out the last years of his life in relative comfort and dignity.

Ewell died of complications from his amputations on 4 April 1996, and was buried in Lancaster. He was survived by his wife, Duella, and their four children.

If Ewell had been allowed to compete at the Olympic level as a younger athlete, there is no doubt that he would have been a favored contender for at least one gold medal in the sprint events. U.S. Track and Field News named Ewell one of the ten greatest sprinters of all time, and he was named to the Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1986. His lifetime achievements were honored at halftime during the Penn State-Wisconsin men's basketball game on 17 February 1995, and Goffberg has established a $25,000 scholarship in Ewell's name at Penn State. In addition, the Penn State Sports Hall of Fame will have a section named after Ewell.

There is no full-length biography of the running career of Ewell. Short articles on Ewell appear in R. L. Quercetani's A World History of Track and Field Athletics, 1864–1964 (1964), Reid M. Hanley's Who's Who in Track and Field (1973), and Bill Mallon, Ian Buchanan, and Jeffrey Tishman's Quest for Gold (1984). Detailed material on Ewell's life and achievements is somewhat difficult to find; the best sources are articles published in the Penn State Digital Collegian (5 Apr. 1996 and 2 May 1997). An obituary by Kevin Gorman is in Digital Collegian (5 Apr. 1996).

Kelly Winters