Data Sought for Book about Two-Time Olympian Browning Ross
Thursday, March 08, 2012
By Bob Shryock, Gloucester County Times
He was Gloucester County’s only two-time Olympian. A close friend and fellow distance runner, Tom Osler, lionized him as “The father of distance running in the United States.” He is mentioned in the autobiography of Roger Bannister, the world’s first sub-4 minute miler. When he died of a heart attack, April 27, 1998, after his daily three-mile run near his Woodbury home, the New York Times devoted 20 inches to his obituary.
And while the hearse was delivering legendary Browning Ross to his final resting place, members of the Gloucester Catholic High School track team he coached so proudly jogged alongside in a tear-provoking, gut-wrenching tribute.
Ross, one of the county’s most accomplished athletes in history, a will-o-the-wisp running machine from Woodbury High and Villanova who represented his country in the London and Helsinki Olympics and raced competitively around the globe, would be 87 years old.
So not everyone remembers the man or his bigger-than-life persona.
But Jack Heath remembers. And he is determined to not let others forget.
Heath, a Bellmawr resident who coached with Ross, was a member of his Ram teams, and considers him the most important person in his life next to his parents, is gathering data for a book about Browning he hopes to complete and publish this spring.
“I never would have coached without Browning’s influence and encouragement,” says Heath, Gloucester Catholic’s cross-country coach for nearly 30 years. “I want kids to be able to go to the library to read the book and discover how important he was to running. Few people around here know what he accomplished. I also want to convey what kind of person he was. His story is long overdue.”
Heath, whose full-time job is in computer technology with the Social Security Administration and who was GC’s first computer classroom instructor, met Ross at Gloucester Catholic in 1974 when Ross was coaching at the school for one of three stints spanning three decades.
Heath came out for spring track wearing baseball spikes, set on trying out for jumping events.
“Ross told me, ‘Jack, try the mile.’ I ran a 5:30. He said, ‘You’re gonna be a good distance runner.’ So after that, I ran the mile, two-mile, and steeplechase.”
Heath graduated from Gloucester Catholic in 1977, after establishing the school’s two-mile record and becoming the first Ram to qualify for the state Meet of Champions, and his path would cross Ross’ on almost a daily basis for the next 21 years via competition and coaching.
Says Heath, “Many coaches treat kids like kids, but Browning treated you like you were a real person. One of his coaching strengths was how nice and how generous a person he was.
“He was humble. But he was a great coach who was ahead of his time. The New York Times said he was ‘born to run.’ He knew what worked. He was ‘sane’ with his training although he advocated running 40 miles a week.” Heath has enough Ross memories to fill several chapters in his book.
Ross sometimes had his Ram runners working out barefoot because he said your feet could become atrophied in running shoes. So Heath once ran a shoeless half-mile in a Moorestown Friends meet.
Once, when he was running for Glassboro State College, Heath was asked by Ross to help him coach Gloucester Catholic.
“I’ll be by to pick you up at 3,” Ross told him. “I thought he was kidding. But he picked me up, right at 3 ... and I became his assistant.”
Heath says Browning “struggled with French” at WHS but his teacher gave him a good grade, figuring he’d never have to use the language. “Then he mailed her a postcard from Normandy when he was serving in World War II.” Ross ran in the steeplechase in the 1948 London Olympics, placing seventh (Boston Marathon champion John Kelley was his roommate), and was 12th in his steeplechase heat in 1952 at Helsinki, failing to make the finals because of an upset stomach. In the 1951 British Games he placed fifth to Roger Bannister’s mile victory and received a mention in Bannister’s book.
“He had great speed and won races all over the country,” Heath says. “Browning’s best distance was 10 miles. He won the Berwick, Pa. 10-miler 10 times.”
There were countless Ross accomplishments: Becoming the first world’s cross-country coach; starting the first national runners’ club and leading country-wide events; launching the first nationwide runners’ magazine and mailing it himself.
Heath was scheduled to coach with Ross in a meet against Williamstown the day after Ross died.
“I talked to him every day,” Heath says. “When the phone rang that day with the news he had died, I thought it was him. It was the worst feeling I’ve ever had. The whole running community felt the same way. To me, running just didn’t feel the same; it just hasn’t been as much fun.
“But Browning’s greatest accomplishment was being a good father. He was a great family man (wife Sis, son Barry, daughters Bonnie and Barbara).”
The late Sis Ross once said of her husband, “No one loved running as much as Browning.”
Jack Heath will offer additional proof.
Jack Heath encourages Ross’ friends and associates to loan him newspaper clippings and photographs for possible inclusion in his book. His email address is email@example.com.