During my recent Wisconsin Book Festival conversation with David Maraniss about “Path Lit by Lightning,” his acclaimed new biography of Native American athlete Jim Thorpe, Maraniss mentioned being especially intrigued by an encounter Thorpe had in Milwaukee in 1922.
On that November day, Thorpe played professional football against a team that included Paul Robeson, later a towering stage actor and political and civil rights activist.
“Native American colossus against African American colossus,” Maraniss wrote in his book. “Heroes for their mistreated people struggling against the odds in a white country.”
The historic resonance of that is inarguable, yet it was another encounter Thorpe had in Milwaukee, three decades later, that made me smile while reading “Path Lit by Lightning.”
On July 12, 1951, Milwaukee was reopening its busiest street, Wisconsin Avenue, after months of construction. A celebration was planned.
“Police estimated,” the United Press later reported, “more than 50,000 people lined the avenue to view the ceremony.”
The highlight came when Jim Thorpe — then living, briefly, in Milwaukee — fired a starter’s gun after handing a flaming Grecian torch to a famed Wisconsin track star, who “galloped up the crowd lined avenue,” UP noted, “carrying [the torch] as symbol of the street’s reopening.”
The runner’s name was Don Gehrmann. In the late 1940s and early ’50s, Gehrmann, who grew up in Milwaukee, attended the University of Wisconsin–Madison and eventually settled here. He was a bona fide distance running star, an Olympian and world record holder.
Gerhmann died last month, age 94, and although his obituary took appropriate note of his many athletic accomplishments, it didn’t mention a somewhat strange late-life episode that seems worth remembering.
We might call it “The case of the $425 running shoes.” Unlike so many stories today, it even had a happy ending.
This happened in spring 2009. I was writing a daily column for the Wisconsin State Journal and Gehrmann got in touch to tell me about a funny thing one of his grandchildren had discovered while surfing the internet. He invited me to his home off Cottage Grove Road to hear the tale.
His granddaughter had typed “Don Gehrmann” into a search engine and what popped up on Track Past, a website devoted to track and field memorabilia, was an offering for “Vintage World Record Track Spikes.”
The shoes were identified as having belonged to Gehrmann, who wore them in the 1948 Olympics and 1952 British Games.
“These exceedingly rare, museum quality items,” the posting noted, “come with a letter signed by Don when they were presented to a University of Wisconsin administrator.”
The asking price was $425.
Gehrmann first thought the shoes, handmade by a cobbler in Wimbledon, England, must be the pair he’d donated to UW Athletics for display around the time of the Kohl Center’s 1998 opening.
Further investigation revealed they were in fact a similar pair Gehrmann had presented in the late 1970s to a prominent UW Athletics booster, now deceased.
Gehrmann’s children — he and his wife, Lori, had five — suggested they wanted to go together and buy the shoes. Gehrmann told me he had discouraged them.
“I don’t need the shoes,” he said. “I have the memories.”
He shared some of those with me that day, though he was remarkably modest. He kept his trophies downstairs and was more eager to talk about his grandchildren.
But the press clippings adjacent to the trophies told the story: Between 1949 and 1952, Gehrmann won 39 consecutive major mile races against topflight competition. His world record was in the 1,000 meters. He was named the top miler of the Big Ten’s first 50 years. The list goes on.
The day my column on the auctioning of Gehrmann’s shoes appeared in the newspaper, the curator and director of the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison shared a phone call and agreed the museum should do what it could to acquire the shoes.
They were successful. Plans were in the works for an Olympics exhibit at the museum. Soon after the shoes arrived — late April 2009 — the staff invited Gehrmann to visit.
I tagged along. Gehrmann was like I’d seen him before: humorous, self-deprecating, immensely likable.
But when he picked up a shoe, I could tell he was touched.
“It’s an honor,” he said.
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