Friday, April 19, 2013

Dave Williams Gloucester Catholic's First Great Runner

When you think of the great runners Gloucester Catholic has produced one name that might not come to mind but should is Dave Williams. Williams was a 1937 graduate of Gloucester Catholic High School, born and raised in Gloucester,  Dave Williams 1947, 28 years oldNew Jersey. Gloucester Catholic did not have a track team in the 30's when Williams graduated, but he started running with his father George, an accomplished runner in the 1920’s and his uncles Harry, Thomas and William. Dave soon became according to the Philadelphia newspapers of the 1940’s, "one of the best runners in the country". Some Gloucester contemporaries remember: "If you saw someone running back then (the 1930's-40's) you knew it was one of the Williams family, they were great runners." One of Dave’s first races was the AAU 6 mile cross-country championship held in Gloucester City in Nov 14, 1935. The race started at the old Gloucester High School and ran through Gloucester on a cold wind-swept fall day. Dave, a junior at Gloucester Catholic finished only 13 seconds behind his father and was hooked.
In the next four years Dave Williams became the top runner in the Philadelphia/New Jersey area winning a number of championship distance races for well over a decade.
Williams went to Georgetown in 1942 on an athletic scholarship and quickly made a name for himself becoming the Hoyas top miler and cross country runner. The May 23, 1943 New York Times noted that frosh Williams won the mile in the first race held on the brand new Georgetown track "Dave Williams beat a heavily favored Fordham runner in 4:24. Gate receipts for the meet were turned over to the Army relief fund." Williams won a series of races for Georgetown including an indoor Melrose Games mile in 4:19. As a sophomore Williams continued to run for Georgetown and for Shanahan Catholic Club of Philadelphia in open races. The Philadelphia newspapers note that he was unbeaten for two years before finishing third in the national 10,000-meter championships in Newark New Jersey. The Courier Post on December 5,1943 reported: “Dave Williams is the outstanding runner in the East if not in the country.” Williams remained one of the best runners in the country through the 1940's:
- On December 1941 while a freshman at Georgetown, Williams won the Hail America 6 mile championship at the Penn AC boathouse in 31:09, pulling away from the field at the half way mark of the race.
- On December 6, 1942 Williams won the Camden YMCA 4.7 mile Street Run, the biggest race in the Philadelphia area at the time in 23:04. Williams did what had never been done before in the race-- he won the time prize and was the first to finish. That is, he started 5 minutes behind the field and still won. (Until 1957 most races were started with handicapped starts). Ironically, the second place finisher was Browning Ross a Woodbury High Senior who would later go on to be a two time Olympian and long time Gloucester Catholic Coach. Ross at that time was unbeaten in scholastic competition and a state mile and cross-country champion at Woodbury and was running for Shanahan Catholic Club managed by future Villanova coaching great Jack Pyrah
- On Thanksgiving Day 1942 Williams won the Mid Atlantic AAU Williams winning AAU 10k Championship Fairmount Park Nov 29, 1943Championships at 10,000 meters.
Philadelphia Bulletin Headline, Dec 13 1942: "Williams overcomes 5 minute 30 second handicap to win Nativity CC Run."
- On February 28 Williams laps a star-studded field to win the AAU two-mile championship at Penn in 9:40. Described in the Philadelphia papers as "an exceptionally good time despite cold and high winds".
- In March 1943 Williams ran 24:31 for a 4 1/2 mile race put on by the Camden County Parks Commission at Cooper River beating Browning Ross by 58 seconds. Ross had recently won the AAU indoor mile championship while a student at Woodbury.
- On November 29, 1943 Williams won the Mid Atlantic AAU 10k championship for the second year in a row at Fairmont Park in 32:21. Williams came from behind to out kick Tom Crane of Catholic University. There is a good chance Dave Williams time might still win the race if it were held today.
The Philadelphia Inquirer describes an April 3rd 1943 AAU 4 1/2 mile street run sponsored by the Ontario Athletic Club-- after the first two runners with a handicapped start (1 min 50 second advantage) had just finished:” the battle for third was one of the best features of the race as it involved the two best in the field-- Williams Georgetown ace and AAU 10,000 meter champion had the best actual time 23:27, Ross New Jersey Interscholastic champion the second best time 23:55. Ross who started 30 seconds behind Williams held the lead until the last mile, then Williams the only scratch man in the field drew abreast. Entering the last quarter mile, Williams drew ahead and stayed there until 50 yards from home. Here Ross opened a driving finish and beat him to the line by five yards." Ross went on to Villanova and two Olympic teams.
Dave Williams winning Army Mile Championship in Florence during World War II
In 1944, Dave Williams put his running career on hold and joined the Army a decision that most likely cost him a berth on the US 1948 (London) Olympic team. He transferred out of his original regiment and into the 10th Mountain Infantry Regiment of the Army (an equivalent of our Special Forces today) to fight in World War II.
The move may have saved his life as his original regiment suffered heavily causalities. The 10th Mountain Regiment also faced fierce fighting in Italy. Williams was trained to ride horses and to ski as part of his special combat Dave Williams running in Italy in World War II as fellow soldiers of the 10th Mountain Regiment look on. Stars and Stripes Phototraining. Noticing his exceptional running ability, Williams was pulled from the foxholes and front lines in Italy and given the opportunity to “visit Venice or run a race in Florence”. His daughter Alex Williams: “Being the true runner he was, he chose the race of course.” Williams then represented the Armed Forces in track meets in Europe. Alex Williams: “There was a great article about a “fouling duel” he had with an Italian runner in a race—they say the dual arose because of “cultural misunderstandings” in the article. But he, feisty Gloucester boy that he was, said it was a result of the other runner trying to push him out of his lane! He realized that the vehement whistling after the incident was the actually the fans booing—but he pretended to think otherwise and ran in gesturing as if accepting the crowds approval!”

Williams continued his running while housed with an Italian family. A teenage girl in the host family’s house watched him return from a training run and cheered him on: “Bella gambas, Davide, Bella gambas!” (Nice legs David, nice legs!)

Williams was told to prepare to be part of the invasion of Japan but then got the news that the invasion was off when the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan. Upon his return to the States, Williams finished his service in the Army and soon resumed his running career as one of the top runners in the Philadelphia/ South Jersey area.:
- In 1946 Williams won the 10k street run from Camden To Maple Shade in 33:47.
- In 1947 he won the Breen McCracken VFW 3 mile run in Philadelphia winning the best time prize with a time of 15:35. Williams edges future Olympian Browning Ross by two yards in Camden Y Street Run
- In 1949 Williams ran 23:47 in the 4.7 mile Camden Y run as one of the fastest "scratch runners".
- In 1956 Dave Williams ran 24:37 in the  Camden Y run to again place among the top finishers.
Williams had married Marcella Manion, his sweetheart from Gloucester City. Their first child, daughter Marcella was born and he resumed his education at the University of Michigan. Moving his wife and daughter to Michigan with him he ran well but soon became homesick. He transferred to Villanova in 1947 where he completed his college eligibility running for legendary Jumbo Elliott (whose curmudgeonly personality he did not care for) and with Browning Ross on some record setting Distance Medley relay teams.
Ross, a Woodbury grad and future Olympian had at one time been of his toughest competitors as well as a young runner he had helped mentor before going into the service. Dave and Marcella Williams worked as a cook and butler for a wealthy family at Villanova when second daughter Alexandra (Alex) was born in 1947. Alex recalls: “I know my dad wasn’t much of a butler; but fortunately my mom was an excellent cook.”
  In the late 1940's Running Greats and World War II vets Dave Williams and Browning Ross teamed up in Gloucester to form the St Mary's Guild track team, a running team for grade school students in Gloucester that preceded the track teams of St Mary's and Gloucester Catholic. The St Mary's Guild was started in the depression as a way to provide recreational opportunities and apprenticeship and craft training for St Mary's grade school students.
The Williams family would grow to five children as David Jr, Celeste and Lisa were born. The family moved back to South Jersey and then to New Castle, Delaware in 1954. Dave continued his career as an English teacher in Delaware and gave back to the sport he loved as a cross country and track coach, passing on his knowledge and love of running to his own children as well as to the Delaware runners he coached at DeLaWarr, Conrad and William Penn High Schools. His cross-country team at DeLaWarr High in Delaware won a state cross-country championship.
     The popular coach would often be joined at home by visits from his teams at Christmas or for group swims in his swimming pool after long runs down Delaware’s dusty Route 9. Meanwhile Williams continued his own running in Delaware races. He won the Delaware State two-mile championship at the age of 39 out kicking some premier college runners in the field to win with two of his daughters in attendance.

Williams survived colon cancer in his 40’s and continued to run with half a colon (using some classic English teacher humor he referred to it as his “semi-colon”) for more than 30 years. He also ran and placed well in the Caesar Rodney half marathons in the 60’s (The inaugural 1964 race was won by his friend Browning Ross in 1:07:24). While Williams continued to win his age group and finish near the front of the pack in Delaware races at a variety of distances, he even returned to Gloucester New Jersey, his hometown in 1980 with one of his daughters to run in the Gloucester Sportsman AC 4 mile race. It was the legendary race where a train stopped everyone in the race except for winner Larry Schemelia-- who had a large lead. Once the train passed, the entire field made a mad sprint for the last half-mile of the race. Ironically, Schemelia a high school state champion in 1969 from Gloucester High and a junior college National Champion was the best runner from Gloucester since Dave Williams but the two never met at the race.
   Daughter Alex remembers her fathers racing advice: “Dad would always say if a runner has enough left at the end of the race to sprint, they didn’t run as hard as they could have during the race.” Running was obviously in the Williams genes. Dave's sister Veronica (Hermanson) was also a fine runner-- unfortunately in an era where there were far less opportunities for women runners. (Dave’s daughters are still active runners and have run 3 marathons including London.)
Dave Williams had another talent besides being a champion runner and coach-- he was also a fine singer. His sister Sarah Murphy recalls her brother dressing all in green and visiting the senior homes to serenade the residents with Irish songs on St. Patrick’s Day with his fine tenor. He also sang the National Anthem before the Cape May Footrace each year.
     Dave Williams continued to enjoy his daily runs into his 70's, and still won an age group prize at age 70. He was fit enough to easily run up to seven miles at night. His son David Jr. received an insight into what had made his father a champion runner. “I would play golf with my dad after his retirement and he was still fiercely competitive. He never played much golf but he could “will” a putt to go in from 30 yards through force of his will and his competitive fire. He would end up making friends and knowing everything about strangers we had just met on the golf course. He was always interested in others.” “ He could also look at two runners and say this one has more talent but the other runner has more heart and will be tougher to beat.” Alex Williams: “My mother always said my dad was 90% heart, My dad would always say when he talked to an audience of runners that it was the one sport that you could participate in on the basis of heart and not natural talent alone.”

Besides his running, Dave Williams supplemented his fitness by putting on roofs through his 60’s-- a trade he had learned from his father George who had his own roofing and siding business in Gloucester. At the age of 71 Dave Williams passed away suddenly from an aortic aneurysm. At the service a violinist played his favorite song “Oh Danny Boy”. The 5’8 ‘’ runner from Gloucester, New Jersey with the big heart and soft, quick footsteps that had taken him around the world to run against the worlds best, and who had inspired so many to achieve their dreams was laid to rest in his Green “St Patrick’s day singing suit” that had brought joy to so many people. Gloucester Catholic High School, Gloucester City and Delaware are proud to call this elite runner and patriot one of their own.

“Oh danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen and down the mountain side
The summers gone, and all the roses falling
Its you, its you must go
and I must bide
But come ye back when summers in the meadow
Or when the valleys hushed and white with snow
Its I'll be here in sunshine, or in shadow
Oh danny boy, oh danny boy, I love you so
And I shall hear tho soft you tread
above me.”

From Dave Williams favorite song “Oh Danny Boy”

To see Dave Williams race results and articles, go to the Gloucester Catholic Cross Country Website: under John Glazier Scrapbooks 1 and 2.
To learn more about the 10th Mountain Division: “Soldiers of the Mountain: The Story of the 10th Mountain Division of World War II” by Norma Tadlock Johnson.
Note: The Gloucester Catholic Cross Country Team and Williams family plan to honor Dave Williams with an award to the runner that best epitomizes the spirit of Dave Williams.

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