Olympic Athlete: “Looking Back”

At the age of seven, Glenn Cunningham suffered severe burns to his legs in a schoolhouse explosion in Kansas. His older brother, Floyd, was killed in the explosion that was caused by someone putting gasoline instead of kerosene in the can of fuel used to light the stove.

The doctors wanted to amputate his legs, but he was so upset, his parents told the doctors no. They predicted that he would never walk normally; his transverse arch was practically destroyed, and he lost all the toes on his left foot.

But Glenn not only learned to walk again, he learned to run. Twelve years later, as a high school senior at Elkhart, Kansas, he set the world high school record in the mile run at 4:27.7. He went on to attend Kansas University where he set the national collegiate record in the mile.

Cunningham was also the Amateur Athletic Union’s (AAU) top amateur athlete for 1932 and took 4th place in the 1500-meter at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. Nicknamed the “Kansas Ironman” or “Kansas Flyer,” he won two national collegiate titles and eight AAU crowns, five of them in the outdoor one-mile-1500. In 1934, he set the world record in the mile run.

In 1936, Cunningham was part of the U.S. team that competed in the Berlin Olympics, taking a silver medal in the 1500-meter. Two weeks later, in Stockholm, he set an 800-meter world record of 1:49.7 that stood for three years. He set a world record in the indoor mile run of 4:04.4 in 1938.

During this same time, Cunningham earned his Ph.D. in biology, health and physical education. After retiring from running in 1940, he taught physical education at Cornell University for four years before joining the Navy. He and his wife, Ruth, then started youth ranches for abandoned, abused or delinquent children after World War II.

The Cunninghams had an 840-acre ranch near Burns, Kansas, and later Augusta, Kansas. To fund the ranch, Glen toured the country as an inspirational speaker. When they sold the ranch, they moved to a 40-acre ranch in Plainview, Arkansas and took in more children. It is estimated they took in 8,000-10,000 youths over a 29-year period at their ranches.

When Glenn was traveling through Arkansas a few years later, he “thought it was beautiful.” He bought property in western Perry County, renovating the Hidden Valley Ranch there to lodge troubled boys and house parents as he had done in Kansas.

In 1974, Cunningham was a charter inductee into the National Track and Field inaugural class Hall of Fame along with other track and field star athletes like Mildred “Babe” Didricksen, Jesse Owens and Wilma Randolph. In 1978, he was named the most outstanding track athlete to compete at Madison Square Garden during its first 100 years.

The Cunninghams shut down the ranch in the late 1970s moved to Conway. He later sold the ranch to Jody Brown of Indiana who reopened it and called it Glenhaven in honor of Cunningham. The ranch housed children in group homes and operated its own school. Cunningham published his autobiography, Never Quit, in 1981.

Two weeks after participating in a relay race of former champions at the 100th anniversary of the AAU indoor track and field championships, Glenn Cunningham died on March 10, 1988 of a heart attack as he was doing chores at his ranch in Menifee.

In 2015, the last children were transitioned home from Glenhaven Ranch and Glenhaven Ministries moved its offices to Conway, putting the ranch up for sale. The organization wanted to reach more children. The ranch was very limited in the number of children it could house, only 20 at a time, and was very isolated. Cunningham’s son, John, is the program’s executive director. His grandson, Monte Jones, also works for the nonprofit.

Children are now placed in Homes of Peace and Encouragement (HOPE) homes with parents who are supported with a network of services. Parenting classes are provided and Glenhaven utilizes other services through the Ministry Center. Thousands of children are now reached through its various programs.

Recently Glenhaven Ministries merged with Deliver Hope after partnering together for two years. The legacy started by Olympic runner Glenn Cunningham continues on.

Photo courtesy of Glenhaven Ministries

Reprinted here by special permission of the author, Cindy Beckman, a retired Conway High School history teacher who writes local history.