Monday, May 7, 2012

Iron man John Glazer South Jersey Running Pioneer

 Winner John Glazer on left, 1928

"Glazer Blazes Way to Victory by Displaying Grit and Fleetness of Foot in Camden YMCA Run" Headline November 1, 1928Did you ever wonder what it was like to be a runner before the “running boom”?
How about 50 years before the running boom? South Jersey native John Glazer was a runner from 1922 until the late 1960’s and kept detailed scrapbooks of all his races during those years. The scrapbooks are a time capsule giving a detailed, up close look into what it was like to live and run in Southern New Jersey and Philadelphia during this period. The scrapbooks also chronicle John Glazer’s feat of running in the biggest and best race in South Jersey at the time-- the Camden YMCA 4.7 mile street run 43 years in a row.
The scrapbooks are a time capsule, giving an intimate look at what it was like to be a runner before the depression, through the depression, through World War II, and into the fifties and sixties. The pictures and articles in the scrapbooks make the era come alive. It was a time of home made race numbers, thin soled training shoes, and eating steak before a race. It was a time when automobiles and trolleys were plentiful but were not yet in sole posession of the road. Horses still did much of the local deliveries. It was a time of ferries, not bridges crossing the Delaware River from Camden to Philadelphia. It was a time when runners often trained in parks or inside on tracks but rarely shared the road with cars—except for races. The scrapbooks show big turnouts of runners often up to a hundred-- for the steady circuit of races which were often put on by running clubs that were often affiliated with churches. John Glazer ran for the Nativity Catholic Club in Philadelphia. Shanahan Catholic Club was another competing club which featured a huge clubhouse with a pool, located near Fairmount Park. Villanova Coaching great Jack Pyrah got his start coaching the Shanahan Catholic Club.
Despite a love of reading and a thirst for knowledge he dropped out of school at age 14 to support his family. Young John Glazer at 22 in 1925
John’s trade was making wire baskets and racks which were in demand by hospitals and laboratories. John started a company called “Specialty Wire Works” which was headquartered in his future father in laws basement in Camden NJ.
John married Cecelia in September 1928. Despite never studying fractions in school, John was able to develop a system to make the iron racks to exacting specifications for the medical profession. For relaxation he would turn to wrestling, gymnastics (placing 3rd in the New Jersey State Championships in the parallel bars in 1925) and of course running.
Rita Desher, one of John’s 2 daughters remembers: “Dad loved running and was very dedicated to the sport. We couldn’t see the attraction at the time. We would go with him to a race and not see him for another half hour, often waiting in the cold for him to come back, but he really loved it. Some of the races were even held on Christmas Day.”
Glazer would run two or three times a week usually from three to six miles at a time. Sometimes he would run up to 81 laps on the indoor Camden Y track to get in his six miles. He ran year round despite a physically demanding job with long hours. Born Philip Glazer, he decided to go by the name John because “it sounded tougher than Philip” notes his son-in-law Lowell Desher.” His toughness was already evident in the physical requirements of his job and his ability to train for his beloved YMCA race despite long hours of demanding work.

Here’s what was happening in 1922 when John Glazer began to run:
  • Insulin is used for the first time.
  • Ireland becomes an independent country from England.
  • The Soviet Union is recognized as a country.
  • Readers Digest Magazine first published.
  • Marconi begins regular radio transmissions and WIP becomes the first Philadelphia radio station.
  • Egypt granted independence from England and King Tut discovered.
  • And Camden was the headquarters of the Victor Talking Machine Company—(later to become RCA) home of the first recording studio and first color television produced.

The distance running scene however, was far from new. In 1922 Paavo Nurmi had just set 3 world records in distances up to 5000 meters and Clarence DeMar won the 26th Boston Marathon in 2:18. Some of the local races in the Philadelphia area attracted up to 25,000 spectactors.
Twenty year old John Glazer, ran his first race-- a five mile Christmas Day “marathon” in Camden December 25, 1922. John won a sweater donated by the East Side Youth Association for his seventh place finish. The Courier Post describes the race: “Many of the boys were forced to pick there way through a maze of trolley cars and autos at the finish.”John also started his string of 40 straight Camden Y runs in the inaugural Camden YMCA race on December 1, 1923 when he was 20 years old. John would go on to run 43 of the first 45 races held from 1923 through 1966.

1928 would be an especially good year for the 25 year old John Glazer. Besides getting married, he was also arguably one of the best runners in the Philadelphia/South Jersey area that year.
He won the 1928 Camden Y race in 28:19. The headline in the Courier Post, South Jersey’s major newspaper: “John Glazer Triumphs in Annual “Y” Street Run. “Here are a couple of more wedding presents dear.” With these words John Glazer, Camden’s youthful runner presented to his bride of a month two handsome silver trophies, spoils of victory for this feat in outclassing a big field to win the annual Camden Street Run Saturday.” John Glazer finishes 30th consecutive Y race
The same day the Philadelphia Bulletin headline read: Glazer blazes way to victory by displaying grit and fleetness of foot in Camden YMCA Run.” The article detailed how Glazer had overcome a side stitch to maintain his lead to the finish.

It may be surprising that almost all of the races at the time were handicapped runs where runners started at different intervals or “handicaps”—the fastest runner started from “scratch”. The handicaps were determined by judges before the race, and often published in the newspapers the day before the race.
Tom Osler recalls: “Browning Ross started the Road Runners Club of America in 1957. During those years almost all the road races in this area were handicaps. Once the RRC was formed and could hold its own races under the umbrella of the AAU, this changed. Quickly, only a few handicaps remained.”
Ironically Browning Ross would keep the handicapped races alive once they “disappeared” by hosting a few every year. Also surprising, since there were no age group awards in the pre-running boom years, few of the race clippings mention a runners age. Most of the races featured a mandatory doctor’s pre-race examination by on site doctors. You had to pass the physical before being cleared to start. The winner of one race failed two doctors examinations, before passing the third exam, getting permission to run and then going on to win the race—reminiscent of Clarence DeMar losing six prime years of his career due to a failed physical examination.
John Glazer now focused primarily on running as his sport and continued to garner a number of headlines:
March 4, 1929: “John Glazer finishes second to John Zach by inches in six mile Shanahan Run. Glazer runs 35:30. John Kelly was leading when he collapsed a few feet from the finish line and was disqualified for being carried across the line by friendly hands.”
Glazer continued to place high in a number of races through the 1930’s and he continued to run and finish the YMCA run every year for 40 years. He ran through the depression, and through the birth of his two daughters Rita and Constance. He continued to run while helping to put his brother Jess through medical school. He kept the streak going through World War II and began to become known for the streak in the 1950’s and 1960’s. He kept the streak going through the birth of his grandchildren. Rita Desher remembers: “While I was in the hospital for the birth of our son Greg, dad ran right by the hospital in the race. I could see the race from the window and I told baby Greg “your grandfather is running by!””
John and his family moved to nearby Gloucester, New Jersey in 1955. By this point he was so associated with the Y Race the local papers ran two race stories each year—one profiling him the day before the race and one with the race results and his finish the following day. During this time he donated the winners trophy each year. In 1963 he missed his first Y race after 45 consecutive races due to injury. He ran the 42 and 43rd Y races and his final race in 1967. By this time John was known for the streak and for finishing the race every year. In 1968 John had right hip surgery and it ended his running career. He turned to swimming, but always missed running.
I met John in the 1970’s when he was in his 70’s through his grandson Drew Desher (son of Rita and Lowell), a teammate at Gloucester Catholic. He was swimming a mile a day in the Camden YMCA, where he was a lifetime member and was in robust health. In the early 1980’s his beloved Camden Y race moved to nearby Cooper River. John Glazer, now in his 80’s accompanied us to what turned out to be the final Camden YMCA race. On the way to the race I was struck by his great sense of humor, his vitality health and by how much he still missed running. His son-in- law Lowell Desher reflects that John Glazer was the most remarkable man he had ever met.John Glazer finishes 43rd straight Camden Y race
On June 24, 1997 John Glazer passed away at the age of 94.
Doctors remarked that despite having a heart attack he was still in tremendous condition because of all of his years of running and swimming he had the cardiovascular system of a much younger man.

A 1948 Courier Post article was prescient when it stated:“One wonders why
he continually keeps at it, but as Johnny says, it’s in the blood and he just likes to run. He has no intention of ever giving up the sport—just when it becomes necessary for his health.”

John Glazer, one of the pioneers of south jersey running never really gave up the sport he loved. He was able to pursue his love of running and through his sponsorship and involvement in the local running scene runners like Dave Williams and Browning Ross were able to follow in his footsteps and influence another generation of runners.
- A film of John Glazer finishing the YMCA race in 1956 and archived versions of his fabulous scrapbooks are available at the Gloucester Catholic Cross Country Website:
- John’s beloved Camden YMCA closed down in 2008.
- His grandson Drew, is profiled on this blog in the 1976 Gloucester Catholic Cross Country team article.
Written by Jack Heath for Runners Gazette Magazine