Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Glenn Cunningham was born on August 4, 1909, in Atlanta, Kansas. He overcame a near-crippling childhood accident to become one of the world's leading track and field athletes during the 1930s. An Elkhart, Kansas, schoolhouse fire left him at age seven unable to walk for nearly six weeks. After regaining his ambulatory ability, Cunningham began running to strengthen his badly scarred legs. In 1930 he was the nation's premier high school mile runner, winning state and national titles, establishing a national high school mile record of 4:24.7, and earning a scholarship to the University of Kansas.

In 1932 Cunningham won the first of three consecutive indoor and outdoor Big 6 (now Big 12) Conference mile championships and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) 1500-meter title. He finished fourth in the 1500 meters in the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, California. As the 1933 champion in the ncaa mile and the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) 800 and 1500 meters, he received the Sullivan Award as the nation's top amateur athlete. In 1934 Cunningham established an outdoor world record of 4:06.7 for the mile and won the aau indoor 1500-meter title. He won the aau indoor 1500-meter title again in 1935, 1938, and 1939. In 1935 Cunningham established an indoor world record of 3:50.5 for 1500 meters and secured the first of four consecutive AAU titles in the 1500 meters outdoors. In addition to winning the silver medal in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, he established an outdoor world record of 1:49.7 for the 800 meters.

Educated at the University of Kansas (bachelor of arts, 1934), the University of Iowa (master of arts, 1936), and New York University (doctorate, 1938), Cunningham later served as the director of physical education at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa. After a stint in the navy during World War II, he married Ruth Sheffield in 1947 and established the Glenn Cunningham Youth Ranch for orphans, juvenile delinquents, and underprivileged youths near Burns, Kansas, and later Augusta, Kansas. Cunningham financed the ranch entirely through his income as an inspirational speaker. He died on March 10, 1988, of a heart attack less than two weeks after participating in a relay race of former champions at the 100th anniversary of the AAU indoor track and field championships.

Adam R. Hornbuckle Alexandria, Virginia

Cunningham, Glenn, with George X. Sand. But Never Quit. Lincoln VA: Chosen Books, 1981.

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