At the age of seven, GLENN CUNNINGHAM's legs
were badly burned in an explosion and fire that killed
his older brother. The family doctor said he might
never walk again. However, 22 grueling months later,
Glenn walked for the first time.
Twelve years later, as a high school senior at Elkhart,
Kansas, he ran on painful and scarred legs to set the
world high school record in the mile run (4:27.7).
Three years later while attending Kansas University,
Glenn set the national collegiate record in the mile.
GLENN CUNNINGHAM (1909-1988)
In 1934, two years after that national record, he set the world record in the mile
run, a record he would hold for four years. Then he won the Silver Medal in the
mile run during the 1936 World Olympic Games in Berlin.
Even as he worked and earned a doctor's degree in education, he continued to
run competitively, setting the indoor mile record during 1938 with a time of 4:04.4.
In 1979, he was selected by New York City's Madison Square Garden as "The
Outstanding Track Performer of the Century" during the Garden's first 100 years
(1879-1979). He won 21 races and set seven world records at MSG.
After Glenn's track career ended, he and his wife Ruth operated the Cunningham
Youth Ranch for over 30 years. As dedicated Christians, Glenn and Ruth gave
direction, to have faith in God and to "never quit."
He passed away in 1988, but not before taking in over 9,000 disadvantaged
young people at ranches in Kansas and Arkansas.
The story of the man nicknamed the "Kansas Flyer", the "Elkhart Express" and
the "Iron Horse of Kansas" has been celebrated in his autobiography, Never Quit
(written with George X. Sand), and Dr. Paul Kiell's book, American Miler: The Life
and Times of Glenn Cunningham. Both outstanding books are available at Amazon.
com (see left), Barnes & Noble, eBay, or at your local public library.
Following is an interview between Glenn Cunningham and best-selling author
Darryl Hicks during 1981, not long after publication of the autobiography Never
Quit, in preparation for a national talkshow appearance. Though never released
previously, this exclusive feature has been made available to MyBestYears.com
as an INTERVIEW SPOTLIGHT in commemoration of would have been Glenn
Cunningham's 100th birthday.
MBY: You've told and re-told the story many times, but it seems there is no better place to
start an interview with Glenn Cunningham than with that fateful February day in 1916.
GC: Our family had moved from near the Kansas town of Protection farther west to the
Rolla area during the summer of 1916. Rolla wasn't very large, a few hundred, and we
lived on a rented farm not far from there. We attended a small schoolhouse two miles from
our home. It was the 9th of February 1917 and there was snow on the ground. As usual
during that time of year, it was so cold as my 13 year old brother Floyd, 11 year old sister
Letha, nine year old brother Raymond and I walked toward the little Sunflower School we
attended. I was seven at the time. My older sister Margie, 14 at the time, was at home
taking care of the two youngest children, Johnny and Melva. The Cunninghams were often
the first to get to the school, and that day we arrived before our teacher or any of the
other 15 pupils. Mr. Schroeder taught all the children.
MBY: When you arrived at the schoolhouse, what happened?
GC: Letha stayed outside to play on the swings, even though it was so cold. Floyd,
Raymond and I went inside. Mr. Schroeder kept the key to the front door, and the side
door, left unlocked, only opened from the outside. It was understood that we could use the
side door if we arrived before Mr. Schroeder got there, but once you went in the side door,
you couldn't get back out that same door unless someone opened it from the outside.
Floyd went to put wood inside the large pot-bellied stove to get the room heated, while
Raymond and I went to the blackboard to play games and draw. As Floyd worked, I
decided to go back where he was. He was arranging the coal chunks on top of wood, then
he reached over to get the five-gallon can of kerosene that was kept nearby to get the fire
started. He started to pour it into the stove. Then everything blew up!
MBY: An explosion?
GC: Apparently what happened was that there had been a community meeting the night
before, and someone had brought a can of gasoline to refill their lanterns before they left.
Unfortunately, the can Floyd picked up was filled with gasoline. Plus, there were still some
live coals from the night before underneath the new coal and wood that Floyd had put
inside the stove. When he poured the gasoline on the live coals, we were both enveloped
in fire. I remember hearing my other brother Raymond yelling for us to get out. I mostly
remember the searing pain in my legs. We were trapped inside, breathing all the smoke.
Thankfully Letha heard the boom and saw the flames and smoke inside the windows, and
she ran to pull the side door open.
MBY: How in the world did you make it all the way home?
GC: We kept thinking that if we could just get home, our parents would know what to do.
Unfortunately, as we staggered home, falling down and dragging ourselves back up, we
remembered that our Mother had spent the night sitting up with a neighbor. That morning
our Father had told us that he was going to get her later. That meant that only Margie and
the two smaller ones were there. Margie got Floyd and me in our parent's downstairs bed,
and Raymond ran to get our parents. I remember screaming and not being able to stop,
even when my parents and eventually the doctor arrived.
MBY: What did the doctor say?
GC: He held out no hope for Floyd. He was too badly burned. The doctor told my parents
that I might live unless there was too much infection that set in. "If the infection gets too
bad," he told Mother and Father, "we won't have any choice but to amputate. Regardless,
Glenn will never be able to walk again on those legs. They are just too badly burned."
MBY: Something unusual happened with Floyd, right?
GC: He kept getting worse and worse. He didn't speak at all. Then around midnight every
night, he started humming the melody to that old hymn, "God Be with You Till We Meet
Again." We had attended church revivals and home Bible studies. In fact, I had become a
Christian at one of those home meetings. And I remembered that was Floyd's favorite
song. Several days later, he was humming that tune, then he actually said the words to the
chorus, the first actual words I had heard since the explosion. He finished the last lines
haltingly, "Meet...meet...at Jesus' feet," then he took Mother's hand and pressed it to his
face. In a short while he was dead. It had been nine days since the fire. Several neighbors
and relatives came, along with a preacher I hadn't seen before. They had the funeral out
in our yard, then some men took the pine coffin away to a nearby cemetery, just over the
state line in Oklahoma.
MBY: For you, the battle was just beginning...
GC: It was. The infection spread through my legs. The doctor advised amputation. It was
about this time that a lady came to visit from Elkhart. Even though they weren't in the room
where I was lying, I remember vividly hearing every single word she told Mother, "You
might as well face it. Glenn's gonna be an invalid for the rest of his life."
MBY: What did that do to you, especially after all you had been through?
GC: I think it was at that very moment that I made one of the biggest decisions of my life.
When Mother came back in, I'm NOT going to be an invalid! That lady's wrong!" Thankfully
Mother did something that I'll always be grateful for. She kissed me and said, "I know,
Glenn. She's wrong." I remember saying over and over, "I will walk! I will walk!"
MBY: And you did, but the battle was far from over.
GC: My family was wonderful. I can't even imagine how horrible it must have been with all
the smells and the sight of my rotting flesh. I had lost all the flesh on my knees and shins,
as well as all the toes on my left foot. My transverse arch was mostly gone. Yet my family
kept changing the dressings and massaging my legs, though there was little muscle and
sinew left to massage. Even after I was able to stand, holding onto either the bed or a
chair, a neighbor kid said, "Aw, you ain't never gonna walk again!" But by then I knew that
nothing was going to stop me.
Christmas Eve 1917, Glenn gave his mother a present by taking his first steps
without holding onto anything. Most of time he had to hold onto something. His
legs were crooked. Neighbors and family members said he walked lopsided.
Soon, he proceeded to run, grabbing a milk cow or mule's tail, taking as much
weight off his legs and running behind as the animals headed to water. He still
couldn't straighten out his right leg. Every step was "like daggers," but he never
quit trying. In time Glenn discovered that it was less painful to run than to walk.
Then when he was 12, after the Cunninghams moved near Elkhart, a victory in a
mile foot race in the school's track and field meet against some older
schoolmates changed everything.
MBY: Both of your parents played a large part in your recuperation, but your father wasn't
a big fan of organized sports, right?
GC: He thought it was just showing off. His philosophy was that we weren't getting enough
exercise from our chores on the farm, he would find something else for us to do when we
got home from school. He didn't mind us playing games amongst ourselves, but he was
definitely against athletic events. He just didn't see the need for it. So when I saw the
medal on display in the drugstore window, I decided to enter. I just didn't tell anybody at
home. I showed up at the track meet in my workclothes and thick-soled canvas sneakers. I
was a fourth grader, and most of the others were high school athletes. All of them wore
running shorts and spiked running shoes. I must have looked like David lined up against
all the giants, but I won going away! I knew I was going to be in trouble with my father if I
didn't get home soon, so I didn't wait around for the medal presentation.
MBY: Whatever happened to that medal?
GC: I got to school early on Monday morning and headed for the principal's office.
Somehow the medal had gotten lost. Instead of a medal, I ended up getting a whipping
from my father that evening when I got home. Somehow he had heard the news about the
fourth grader beating all the high school students in the mile race, and he wanted to make
sure that I didn't disobey him by "showing off" like that again.
MBY: But you obviously did.
GC: When I got into junior high, we were in the same building as the high school, so the
teams were combined. Even though I was working at jobs before and after school, I still
found time to play all the sports.
In the spring of 1928, Glenn suffered an injury during a baseball practice that
would have life-changing effect, though no one would know how much at the
time. While catching without a mask, a direct hit by a tipped ball hit him in the
mouth, knocking eight teeth loose. Though his mouth was extremely sore, the
swelling eventually went down and everything seemed to go back to normal.
MBY: The mouth injury certainly didn't seem to hurt you as far as running. Wasn't it right
after that when you set your first world scholastic record for the mile run.
GC: It was unofficial, but it was enough for my high school track
coach to enter me into a competition in Chicago where the best
high school runners in the nation would be. As it turned out,
though, I walked all over Chicago trying to see everything, and
ended up getting this huge blister on my heel. By the time of the
race, my foot had gotten infected and my temperature had raced
up to 104.5 degrees. A doctor took one look at me and
absolutely refused to let me compete. I ran anyway, finishing
fourth. It was a huge disappointment for me, since the winner
was recognized as the best high school miler in the nation. But I
kept competing and training. During my senior year at Elkhart
High School, at the Kansas state meet in Manhattan, I set a new
state record for the mile at 4:28.3. Right after that I went back to
Chicago and won the race in 4 minutes, 24 and seven-tenths
seconds, a new world record for the interscholastic mile!
He never looked back. He decided to attend Kansas University but refused to
accept any scholarship money ("I felt that if I accepted any money from them, I
would owe them. That's why I insisted on working my way through college.") He
arrived on campus in Lawrence already tabbed the greatest scholastic miler in
history. NCAA rules prohibited freshmen from competing in intercollegiate
competitions, so he continued attending classing, working jobs and training
diligently for his sophomore year in 1932. It was to be the one of the greatest
careers of any KU track star as he competed in the half-mile, mile, and two-mile
races. He was undefeated during that year's conference schedule, winning both
the Big Six and national championships. That summer he also qualified for the
1932 Olympic team and finished fourth in 1,500-meter run at the Los Angeles
games, despite infected tonsils and inflamed throat, though he had previously
defeated the winner several times. Partly because of his amazing story and
mostly because of his swift feet, Cunningham became an international celebrity.
Called "the strongest miler ever to step on a track,” by his senior year he had
established a new world record of 4:06.7 and had run seven of recorded history's
13 fastest miles. After his legendary college career, he began pursuing a
Master's Degree in physical education at the University of Iowa, then again
qualified for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Adolf Hitler showed up just in time to
watch him compete in the 1,500-meter run. Though the “Iron Horse of Kansas”
ran the race four-tenths of a second faster than the previous world mark, it was
not good enough to win. He finished six-tenths of a second behind Jack
Lovelock from New Zealand.
MBY: Through the years, even though you spent a lot of pre-race time going
through the laborious ritual of limbering and massaging your scarred legs, and even
though people knew the story about the fire and could see the evidence, in
interviews you never seemed to mention the stiffness and burning leg pains that you
went through during every race, including the 1936 Olympics.
GC: My Mother and Father had always brought us up to never complain. I was asked to do
a lot of speeches through the years, and I often talked about overcoming challenges, but I
just always figured that I needed to do my best and never quit. Complaining about
something I had no control over would have diminished what I was trying to do. I just
wanted to let my running speak for itself.
MBY: What you said after the 1936 Olympics race pretty much says it all.
GC: The reporters all came around. They kept
pressing me for a statement. I was disappoint-
ed, of course, but I knew I had nothing to be
embarrassed about. I just told them that I ran
a fast race and broke the Olympic record for
the 1500 meters, and only one person in the
world ran it faster that day.
After the Olympics, Glenn returned to his
doctoral program at New York University,
continuing to dominate the middle-
distance events during the next three
years. He won 21 out of 31 races at the
famed Madison Square Garden, setting
his best indoor mile there in 1938 with a
time of 4:07.4. But once it became
apparent that there would be no 1940
Olympics because of the war, he retired
MBY: How difficult was it to give up?
GC: Not as much as people thought it would be. The 1940 Olympics had been scheduled
in Japan, but when the Games were cancelled, I went through a lot of changes. I was
finishing my doctorate. I had worked hard, bought a lot of land and accumulated sizable
savings. But I also was going through a broken marriage. I decided, more than anything, I
wanted to make a difference, and I figured I could do it best through education. I accepted
a teaching position at Cornell College in Iowa, then became director of athletics, health
and physical education.
It was in Iowa that a major revelation came as a result of a dental examination. X-
rays showed horrible abscesses, a result of the schoolboy baseball accident that
had knocked his front teeth loose.
MBY: All those years the poison had been going into your system because of the
abscesses. How did you live with the pain?
GC: The dentist said, "It's a wonder you could even walk all those years, much less run
like you did." All along I thought the pain and stiffness in my legs was because of the
explosion. Then I found that so much of it had been caused by the poison.
MBY: Can you imagine what it would have been like to run without all that poison in your
GC: I've thought of that some. I always wanted to be the first to break the four minute mile
(the closest he got was 4:04.4 in 1938 at a Dartmouth track meet, an unofficial
record that stood until 1955!). I know that after the abscesses were taken care of, I
never had anymore trouble with my legs that had been so bothersome all those years.
Still, I just decided that I couldn't let it get to me. All along I knew that I had to make the
best of whatever came my way. That's the way I had been taught. Yes, it would have been
great to have run all those years without the poison from the abscesses causing the fire in
my legs and the infections I often had, but I did what I did. I knew that I had done my best,
no matter what happened.
Those lessons of never quitting and doing his best, regardless of what
challenges he faced, would prove invaluable as a officer and physical fitness
instructor in the United States Navy. He had many opportunities to visit the battle
casualties in the hospitals, many of them burned, to share his well-known story
and offer inspirational support. After the war, he returned to Kansas where a
chance encounter with one of his Cornell College students, Ruth Sheffield, led
to romance, marriage and a new direction in life.
MBY: What was it Ruth said that changed everything?
GC: She was visiting family members there, and we ended up spending quite a bit of time
together riding horses and talking. I was telling her that I felt really aimless for the first time
in my life, out of sorts. I was thinking about going back into teaching. I was overseeing my
land properties. I was still doing quite a few speaking engagements. She could see right
through me. Finally she asked, "Have you ever asked God what He wants you to do with
your life?" That really stopped me. I had accepted Jesus Christ into my heart when I was a
child out on the Kansas plains, and I did pray. I just had never asked God to take control
of my life. I felt uncomfortable talking about it, but I was grateful that she told me she would
be praying that God would give me direction. Actually she said, "I'm going to pray that He
will open a new work that will give your life more meaning than ever." I remember those
words, "new work."
They were married the next summer, and their new direction
came in the form of children. Not only did he and Ruth end up
having ten youngsters (plus two daughters from Glenn's first
marriage), but the family quickly grew as more and more needy
and homeless children came to live with them. Throughout his
career, young people had always been attracted to him. They
swarmed around him at track events, asking for his autograph
and desiring to talk with him. More and more young people
began gathering around him and Ruth. They ended up buying a
property with an 11-room main house, five-room tenant house,
huge barn and several outlying buildings near Cedar Point,
Kansas. It was the start of Cunningham Youth Ranch (which
later included a ranch in Arkansas) where over 9,000 young
people from needy and problem-filled backgrounds found self-
discipline, love, biblical teaching and hope.
There were plenty of animals, including bison, monkeys, deer,
and lots of dogs and horses. As he had experienced as a child,
the young people were expected to work hard, play hard and
never quit. He taught them to live by his favorite Bible verses
such as Proverbs 23:7, "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he."
He shared the never-quit philosophy that was the framework of
his own successes, including these gems:
- If you don't stand for something, you will fall for anything.
- Belief influences action, and action influences belief.
- Act as if it were impossible to fail.
- Every great accomplishment started with a thought.
Just as he had refused to accept scholarship money from
Kansas University as a young man, he preferred to fund the
expenses of the ranch and all the children. In the end, Glenn
and Ruth, much in answer to her prayer for him to find a "new
work," found fulfillment beyond their dreams.
His storybook career included 13 Big Six Conference Championships, two NCAA,
the 1933 Sullivan Award as the nation’s top amateur athlete, nine AAU
Championships, multiple world records, and an Olympic silver medal. Considered
the best middle-distance runner of his generation, he was certainly the most
popular track athlete during a time when true celebrity was attached to the mile
and 1500-meter races.
At Kansas University, which has produced some of the
greatest middle-distance runners in track history
(including Olympians Wes Santee, Jim Ryun and Billy
Mills), a metal silhouette of the "Elkhart Express" stands
watch over the starting line. Fittingly, the finish line also
bears the name of Glenn Cunningham.
Not surprisingly, in 1974 the Athletics Congress (later
called USA Track and Field) established its Hall of Fame in
Charleston, West Virginia, and inducted the "Iron Horse of
Kansas" in its inaugural class. In 1978, a decade before
his death, Madison Square Garden recognized him as the
most outstanding track athlete to perform to sold-out
crowds of 16,000 in the legendary building during its first
On March 10, 1988, as he performed chores, Glenn Cunningham passed away.
The giant of a man was 78 years old. Newspapers around the world carried news
of the legendary runner and educator.
During his life he often said, "I'd rather be dead than be mediocre." In life, he
wanted to be the best, even though he knew that failure was as important to
success as winning. He exemplified the need for winning honestly, aiming high,
pursuing happiness and never, ever quitting.
His most lasting monument, then and now, is not the awards or even the amazing
story. His greatest tribute will continue to be over 9,000 children whose lives
continue to show that when the race seems lost, when the odds are too
overwhelming and when the pain becomes too much...never, ever quit!
|1936 Olympic Games
Heads for Another
World Record in the
Famed Madison Square
|American Miler by Paul J. Kiell, M.D. published by Breakaway Books
|Never Quit with George X. Sand published by Chosen Books
| On page 142 and 143 of the book, Never Quit (written with George X. Sand and
published by Chosen Books):
Ruth Cunningham told Glenn, “You have lived unselfishly, Glenn, never quitting on
any person or difficulty. I prayed a long time ago that the Lord would give you a
significant and fulfilled life. He answered that prayer magnificently, and He did it in a
double dose, because along the way we both discovered Jesus Christ as the source
of every provision in life. How great that we have had the opportunity to learn about
Him, about His plan for our lives and sharing all of this with those youngsters who
came our way."
Glenn and Ruth’s son Gene Cunningham and his wife, Nancy, have been in the
ministry for 30 years. Visit their website and be sure to read their biography:
If you would like to write Gene and Nancy Cunningham to make a comment,
suggestion, or donate to their ministry, they are a 501 (c) (3), all donations are tax
deductible to the full extent of the law.
Mail directly to:
Basic Training Bible Ministries
Gene and Nancy Cunningham
PO Box 21773
Hot Springs, AR 71903
|Exclusive feature on
August 4, 2009, made
would have been
|"The doctor told my
parents that I might
live unless there was
too much infection."
|"He finished the last
Jesus' feet,' then he
took Mother's hand
and pressed it to his
face. In a short while
he was dead. It had
been nine days since
the fire. "