Historical Markers
Walter B. Tewksbury Historical Marker
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Walter B. Tewksbury

Poconos / Endless Mountains


Marker Location:
Memorial Field, Tunkhannock Area High School, Tunkhannock Area High School, 200 yards from Route 6, Tunkhannock

Dedication Date:
July 21, 2000

Behind the Marker

Intercollegiate Track point winners, group photograph, 1899.
The University of Pennsylvania track team, 1899.
Nobody expected Walter Tewksbury to come back from Paris in 1900 with an Olympic gold medal in the 400-meter hurdles. Tewksbury was a sprinter - a dominant one, to be sure - but the 400 not only exceeded his ideal distances, it was a race he had probably never even run before. No American had, for the race had never been contested in the states. And the prohibitive favorite, Frenchman Henry Tauzin, was undefeated and the darling of the home crowd.

Did that faze Tewksbury? Hardly. When he walked onto the track and saw the obstacles he would have to leap, he must have sensed that it was he who actually had the edge. They were not neat, balanced hurdles. They were telephone poles laid across the lanes, with a final jump over water. And how hard could jumping a telephone pole or some water be for an athlete whose unofficial introduction to the sport was hurdling tombstones in the local cemetery? Tewksbury won easily. He was just getting started.
Mike Murphy speaking through megaphone to a crowd at Franklin Field.
University of Pennsylvania track coach Michael Charles Murphy rallying the fans...

Born in 1878, John Walter Beardsley Tewksbury grew up in coal country, in Tunhannock, the county seat of Wyoming County, north of Wilkes-Barre and west of Scranton. It was a small town, but a busy one; extensive lumber operations in the hills surrounding the town fed the mills, and the tub and spool factories within it. The middle-class Tewksburys were prosperous enough to send their son to the University of Pennsylvania in 1895 to study dentistry, where he earned his degree in 1899.

Those were heady years for the relatively new sport of track-and-field in America. Races were nothing new, of course; even small towns held running contests on holidays like July 4th to determine their fastest, strongest, and springiest citizens. As travel became easier and natural rivalries developed among the nation's top colleges, athletic programs expanded dramatically. With an innovative head coach Mike Murphy - in 1896, he helped establish the markerPenn Relay Carnival, still one of the sport's most anticipated annual events - Penn became track-and-field's first collegiate mecca.

University of Pennsylvania track star Alvin Christian Kraenzlein hurdling.
University of Pennsylvania track star Alvin Christian Kraenzlein, circa 1900.
During Tewksbury's freshman year, Murphy noticed the boy running at Franklin Field. Though Tewksbury later admitted he "hardly knew what track was," Murphy knew a potential star when he saw one. The coach boldly predicted he would make a sprinter out of the boy. He did.

In each of Tewksbury's last two years at Penn, he won the national championships in both the 100-yard and 220-yard dashes. With his roommate and fellow dental student, Alvin Kraenzlein,a high-school sprint and hurdling champion from Wisconsin who pioneered a new straight-legged style of hurdling, he formed the nucleus of a Penn squad that was the envy of the sport, dominating all comers from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and West Point. That was just prelude, though.

In Paris, Tewksbury and Kraenzlein garnered a staggering nine medals between them. Tewksbury won the 400-meter hurdles and the 200-meter dash, finished second in both the 100- and 60-meter sprints, and third in the 200-meter hurdles. Kraenzlein beat his roommate in the latter two events, and added gold in two others: the 110-meter hurdles and the long jump. The long jump medal hinged on controversy. The final was held on a Sunday, and even though Syracuse's Meyer Prinstein, the leader through the Saturday semis was Jewish, his college coach prohibited him from competing on the Christian Sabbath. Kraenzlein, under no such restriction, had originally agreed not to compete on Sunday either, but changed his mind. When he won the event by a single centimeter, he and Prinstein almost came to blows.

Group photograph of men sitting in chairs.
Former Philadelphia Olympians, 1965.
How impressive was their combined Olympic achievement? To put it into perspective, no other athlete has ever matched Tewksbury's five track and field medals in a single Olympics, and the only two men to equal Kraenzlein's golden quartet - Jesse Owens in 1936 and Carl Lewis in 1984 - did so with the benefit of a relay.

After the Olympics, Tewksbury returned to Tunkhannock and practiced dentistry until retiring in 1948. When he died in 1963, he was the last surviving member of the 1900 Olympic squad. Kraenzlein also ended his competitive career, as the holder of six world records, shortly after the 1900 games. Like Tewksbury, he became a dentist, but gave it up in 1906 to coach full time, first at Mercersburg Academy in south central Pennsylvania, then the University of Michigan, and finally as an assistant at his alma mater. He died in Wilkes-Barre in 1928.

Both Tewksbury and Kraenzlein are members of the National Track and Field Hall of Fame.
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