Thursday, July 15, 2021

The Iowa Olympian You Never Heard Of...

Many Iowans have competed in the Olympics, as Don Doxsie showed in his survey a few years ago ("Olympic Dreams Blossom in Iowa," Iowa History Journal [July 2012]:4-6, 32-34), and a fair share of them returned home with medals.  Jerry Winholtz (1874-1962), who took a bronze medal in freestyle wrestling at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis (ibid., p. 6), was apparently the first Iowa Olympic medal winner. Few now remember Winholtz, but plenty of Iowans remember Shawn Johnson East (b. 1992), the much-decorated Iowa gymnast who won one gold and three silver medals at the 2008 summer Olympic games. Earlier, Dan Gable (b. 1948), famed wrestler and long-time wrestling coach, won Olympic gold in 1972, attracting a lot of media attention. Older Iowans may remember F. Morgan Taylor (1903-1975), who won medals at the 1924, 1928, and 1932 Olympics. 

1906 Old Gold, yearbook of Iowa State Normal School

However, not even Doxsie's long list of Iowa Olympic competitors identifies the first Iowan to bring home Olympic gold: Frank "Red" Hamilton, who at the 1908 London Olympic games set a torrid pace in the first leg of the 1600-meter relay that the American team won handily. Frank grew up in Rock Creek township, his father operating a rented farm there. The Hamiltons took their mail in Grinnell, used the Grinnell telephone system, and young Frank received at least a part of his education in the Grinnell schools. So, today's Grinnell Story introduces readers to Red Hamilton, a forgotten Iowa Olympic champion who grew up right here in central Iowa.


William Franklin Hamilton (1883-1955) was born in State Center, Iowa where his father farmed. Although records offer some difference over the year of his birth, Frank, as he was usually known, was certainly the youngest of five boys born to William Miller Hamilton (1832-1906) and Laura Manley Hamilton (1842-1923). When in 1885 Iowa census officials found the Hamiltons, Frank's dad was 52; Laura was 42, and mother to the five boys who peopled the farmer's household: George (1873-1925), 13; Paul (1874-1970), 11; Walter (1876-1948), 8; Alfred (1878-1945), 6; and "Franklin," then just two years old. Almost immediately afterward, the Canada-born farmer moved his family to Jasper County, renting a farm in Rock Creek township. Officials conducting the 1900 census found only two sons still at home—Alfred, then 21, and Frank, 18—but a servant helped carry the load for 68-year-old William and 57-year-old Laura.

Grinnell Post Office Listing for William M. Hamilton in 1892 Iowa Farmers' Directory

Details of young Frank's schooling are vague. According to later reports, Hamilton "received his primary education in the rural schools of this county [Jasper], the public school of Grinnell, and the academy at Newton" (Gen. James B. Weaver, ed., Past and Present of Jasper County, Iowa [Indianapolis: B. F. Bowen & Col., 1912], 2:1112). A newspaper report confirms that young Frank did attend Rock Creek Township school no. 7, but the rest remains unconfirmed. 

Notice from the Rock Creek column of the Kellogg Enterprise, December 13, 1889
(thanks to Harley McIlrath who shared this find with me)

According to some accounts, Frank finished school—whether he graduated or not remains unclear—in Newton, attending the Newton Normal College, a successor to the Hazel Dell Academy, but I have yet to find any record to corroborate this claim.

Newton Normal College, ca. 1905
Digital Grinnell

Over the first eighteen or nineteen years of life Frank did not attract much attention, his name rarely appearing in the public records. It is possible, however, that at exactly this time Frank began to run; a photograph of the 1901 Grinnell High School track team includes the slight figure of a boy who resembles the later Frank Hamilton; unfortunately, no identification of those photographed accompanies the picture. 

Photograph of 1901 Grinnell High School Track Team; back row, far right, possibly Frank Hamilton
(Iowa Heritage Illustrated, Summer 2010, p. 67; State Historical Society of Iowa archives)

If Frank ran track for Grinnell at this time, he did not run with the success that attended his later performances. In these years a trio of young Grinnell high schoolers—George Longshore (1883-1911), Karl Kiesel (d. 1963), and William Hodgdon (1884-1965)—regularly won the high school races reported in the newspapers. All through the 1900, 1901, and 1902 track seasons, the names of Longshore, Kiesel, and Hodgdon appear in newspaper accounts; not even in the sprints that later became Hamilton's forte did Frank's name ever appear. Consequently, if Hamilton did run with the Grinnell High School team in these years, he did not distinguish himself.

George Longshore, Karl Kiesel, and William Hodgdon at June 7, 1902 National Meet in Chicago
(Digital Grinnell) 

As a nineteen-year-old, William Frank Hamilton entered the Iowa State Normal School (ISNS) in the fall of 1902, enrolling first in the preparatory department, an indication, perhaps, that he had not in fact graduated from high school. Choosing ISNS was not common for Iowa young men of the time; women made up the great majority of students at the school, which aimed to prepare public school teachers, an occupation that was overwhelmingly female. For the academic year 1905-1906, for instance, women accounted for 777 of the 1003 students regularly enrolled (Sixteenth Biennial Report of the Iowa State Normal School [Des Moines, 1907], p. 14). But a handful of men did enroll at Cedar Falls, and Frank Hamilton was among them, perhaps at that time aiming to become a teacher.

Iowa State Normal School Enrollment Card for William Frank Hamilton
(Courtesy of University of Northern Iowa Archives via Harley McIlrath)

But what brought Frank—or "Red" or "Reddy," as his auburn hair came to identify him—to public attention in these years had little to do with schoolwork. At ISNS Red rather suddenly bloomed into a track star, anchoring an increasingly successful track and field squad.

Publications from ISNS confirm that Frank did join the school's track team spring 1903, but he seems not to have made much of an impression that first season. As a retrospective glance from 1907 made clear, in his first year at Cedar Falls Hamilton "had then no record to distinguish him, in an athletic way, from any of the other youthful aspirants" to running success (1907 Old Gold, p. 254). A notice from late May 1903 reports that Hamilton was taken to that year's state meet, but only because he was among the "promising men for next year" (Normal Eyte, June 10, 1903). That promise, however, was enough to impress coaches and fellow track men, because in January 1904 they named Frank team captain (ibid., January 16, 1904), an honor that seems outsize for a man who had so far proved little on the cinder track. An article assessing the squad's chances in the upcoming season observed that,

While Red Hamilton is much faster than [he was] last year...he does not begin to be in the same class with the greased-lightning sprinters which our sister institutions are praising so loudly (ibid., March 19, 1904).

Against this rather modest assessment, unexpected illness further tamped down expectations. In late March measles interrupted Hamilton's running, and the ISNS newspaper worried that it was "now doubtful whether Hamilton will return for spring term as his eyes are bothering him" (ibid., March 26, 1904). Frank did return, however, and almost overnight became what the Normal Eyte enthusiastically called "our champion sprinter" (ibid., April 29, 1904). At Normal's home meet in late April, Hamilton exploded into sporting glory, winning the 100-yard, 220-yard, and 440-yard dashes along with a third-place finish in the 220-yard hurdles (ibid.). The same man, who one month earlier was so seriously ill that he contemplated abandoning running, now ran four races in the same meet, and won three of them. At the Inter-State meet held at Normal in early May, Red continued his hot pace, again winning the 100-, 220-, and 440-yard dashes, beating the old school records (ibid., May 10, 1904). Quite suddenly Red Hamilton, who may not have run at all in high school and who in his first year at Normal only "showed promise," had become a collegiate sprinting star and the darling of ISNS track fans. How had it happened?

It bears emphasizing that Red's successful 1904 times were not much different from the winning times put up by Grinnell High School track men when Frank himself was a high schooler. Now more mature and practiced, Hamilton—described as "stout" in his 1917 draft registration—was still running at times younger competitors had reached years earlier. For instance, Hamilton's May 1904 record in the 100-yard dash, 10.5 seconds (Cedar Falls Gazette, May 10, 1904), barely reached George Longshore's best time in that event (10.4 seconds) in 1902, when Longshore was just a high school junior (Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, June 9, 1902). (To be fair, a couple of days later Red ran the 100 in 10 flat [Iowa State Reporter, May 13, 1904].) Even as a high school freshman, Longshore had won the 100 in the 1901 State Meet with a time of 10.6 seconds (Cedar Rapids Republican, May 18, 1901). Something similar might be said about the 220, which high schooler Longshore won in Chicago in 1902 with a time of 22.8 seconds (Des Moines Daily Leader, June 8, 1902); two years later collegiate sophomore Red Hamilton set the record at ISNS with a time of 23 seconds (1906 Old Gold, p. 76). In other words, Red's improvement, though real, was not quite as gobsmacking as it must have seemed to the young man enjoying the recent glow of athletic fame.

All the same, Hamilton continued to improve and impress. Several times during the 1905 season, Red ran the 100 in ten seconds flat, the new ISNS record. Moreover, as before, Hamilton routinely ran at least three races at each meet, setting new records not only for the 100-yard dash, but also for both the 220 (22.6 seconds) and 440 (52 seconds). As the Normal Eyte reported about the May 1905 dual meet with Coe, 

Reddy Hamilton was the star of the meet. He ran the 100 in ten seconds flat, leaving Coe's sprinter far in the rear. He took first in the 220 and 440 dashes, and, in the most exciting half mile ever run on Normal's track, overtook the fleet-footed Cameron of Coe and finished with more of a lead than he had handicap at the start. The crowd simply went wild (May 21, 1905).

Hamilton's successes accumulated, leading an ISNS commentator to declare Red "the greatest college sprinter in Iowa" (1905 Normal Eyte Annual, p. 76). Hamilton's speed encouraged him in 1905 to experiment with playing football for ISNS. Typically stationed at right end, Red used his speed to evade tackles (and tickle the heart-strings of ISNS fans).

Frank Hamilton in Football Gear at ISNS
(Normal Eyte, December 13, 1905)

But it was on the cinder oval that Red achieved his greatest successes. During the 1906 season Red continued his winning ways, competing in (and winning) multiple events on the same day. At a Cedar Rapids meet in May, for example, he won the 100-yard dash, the 220-yard dash, the 220-yard hurdles, and the broad jump. In addition, he anchored the half-mile relay team which also won (ibid., May 23, 1906). At the annual Conference Field Meet in Chicago in June, Hamilton again walked away with the 100- and 220-yard dashes, successes that led some trainers to appeal to Red to come to their universities. Back in Cedar Falls, fans viewed with regret the end of Hamilton's ISNS running days.

We feel very sorry to lose our faithful athlete but realize that it is for his best welfare that he leaves us...In large measure Mr. Hamilton's success is due to his clean personal habits. Unlike many athletes, he is in training every day of his life as he is entirely free from degrading habits or vices, and takes great care to maintain the perfect physical condition and vigorous health that he enjoys (ibid., June 6, 1906).

1906 ISNS Track Team; Hamilton: 2nd from right, 2nd row
(1907 Old Gold, p. 237)

But what would be next for the track sensation? In early 1906 Frank had experimented with teaching mathematics at Cedar Falls High School (Normal Eyte, January 31, 1906), a not unlikely result of having attended ISNS. But by summer 1906, Red seems to have had other ambitions, and running remained at the center of his attention. 

Cedar Falls High School, ca. 1903 (no longer standing)

Two autumn articles reported that Red had decided to enroll at Drake University Medical Department (Drake Times Delphic, September 22, 1906; Normal Eyte, September 26, 1906). Inasmuch as "Doc" Pell, Hamilton's track coach at ISNS, had also signed on with Drake, Red's decision seems easy to explain. However, within a month Hamilton withdrew from Drake and announced that he was determined to enter medical school at Chicago's Northwestern University. More importantly, Red told reporters that "I shall never appear on the cinder path for a college again." Saying so did not mean, however, that he would not run. "I enjoy running," Red said, "and don't like to think of giving it all I may possibly join some athletic club and thus keep on the track..." (Des Moines Register, October 31, 1906).


The abrupt farewell to Drake began the next stage in Red's career that culminated in his appearance at the 1908 Olympic games in London. Within days of his departure from Des Moines, Hamilton signed up with the YMCA Training School in Chicago (Coe College Cosmos, November 8, 1906) and resumed competitive running. In March 1907 Frank ran both the 60-and the 440-yard dashes at the A.A.U. championship. Commentators thought Hamilton a good bet to win, recognizing him "as a speedy man when he gets started, but [he] is slow in the getaway" (Inter Ocean, March 8, 1907). A month later Red participated in the Cook County YMCA meet, running in the 120, 220, and 440 (ibid., April 5, 1907). All spring Frank appeared in meets throughout greater Chicago, honing his technique and strengthening his legs.

By summer, Red decided to travel to England where he would give "exhibition runs" (Des Moines Register, June 11, 1907). This plan generated gossip about whether the former ISNS star might go professional (Iowa City Press-Citizen, June 17, 1907). Instead, under the sponsorship of the Chicago Athletic Association Hamilton continued to compete in amateur meets. In late August he set a new central AAU record in the 220 (22 2/5), but was disappointed to lose to another Grinnell speedster, Harry "Doc" Huff (1880-1964), in the 100 (Inter Ocean, September 1, 1907). A few days later Hamilton won the 440 at the Metropolitan Athletic Association meet (ibid., September 3, 1907). 

Inter Ocean, October 31, 1907

The pace was punishing, and cannot have left Red with much time to think about medical school. Perhaps this circumstance explains why in October 1907 Frank announced that he would enroll in the medical department of the University of Louisville (ibid., October 31, 1907). Medical school or not, Hamilton was not yet ready to abandon running, his eyes firmly set on making the US Olympic track team. In May 1908 the years of conditioning and competitive racing paid off handsomely at the US Olympic qualifying meet in Chicago: Frank won both the 100- and 200-meter dashes, thereby earning a spot on the American Olympic Track and Field team (Chicago Tribune, May 30, 1908; Des Moines Tribune, June 9, 1908). 

Much was written about the US squad and its journey to England aboard the SS Philadelphia. Organizers attempted to provide the means by which the athletes could continue to train while the ship plied the North Atlantic en route to England. According to American officials,

the men will train all the way over [the ocean]. They will use the poop deck for the work, and a board track will be rigged up for running and the jumping. They will have a special training table and a gymnasium with all the necessary apparatus aboard (Inter Ocean, June 28, 1908).

The long journey extended public anticipation of Olympic competition, but when fog slowed the Americans' arrival, American newspapers could only groan (Chicago Tribune, July 6, 1908).

Sprinting in London in mid-July might not be a runner's first choice, but by the time the American Olympians reached London, the athletes were eager to make their mark. Hamilton was among the favorites in the 100-meter dash, but, because there were so many entrants, organizers had to run 17 heats to narrow the field. Red won his heat—the eleventh—with a time of 11 1/5 seconds, but officials scratched him from the semi-finals, so he did not run in the final, won by R. E. Walker of South Africa. Again in the 200-meter Hamilton won his heat—the tenth— with a time of 22 2/5 seconds, but lost a close race to Canada's Kerr in the first semi-final heat, and therefore could not run in the finals (The Fourth Olympiad, Being the Official Report of the Olympic Games of 1908 [London: British Olympic Association, 1909], pp. 50-53). Since both the 100- and 200-meter dashes were thought to be Hamilton's best events, it looked as though Red might go home without any Olympic medals.

The American 1600-meter Relay Team at 1908 London Olympics:
L-R: Nathaniel Cartnell, John Taylor, Melvin Sheppard, and W. F. Hamilton
(University of Pennsylvania Archives: Digital Images. UPF 1.9 AR, Alumni Records Collection, Box 2702.

But then fate intervened. Harry Huff was scheduled to run the first leg (200 meters) of the 1600-meter relay, but an injury forced him to withdraw (Grinnell Herald, July 28, 1908). Hamilton took his place and did all that the Americans could have wished. In the qualifying heat, Red gave his teammate, Nate Cartnell (1883-1967), a two-yard advantage. By the time Cartnell touched John Taylor (1882-1908) (the only African American on the squad), the American lead had expanded to six yards. Taylor kept the advantage, handing off to Melvin Sheppard (1883-1942) for the final 800 meters. Sheppard, who had already won gold in the 800-meter race (Chicago Tribune, July 21, 1908), widened the gap, winning by 25 yards. The final proved that the American semi-final win was no fluke. In the first 200 meters Hamilton opened up a six-yard lead, and Cartnell extended the advantage to eight yards. John Taylor's "remarkable stride widened the gap very considerably, giving Sheppard a 15-yard head start which he widened to twenty-five yards by the time he broke the tape" (ibid., pp. 98-99). The American team easily won gold, and Frank Hamilton, stymied at the 100- and 200-meter dashes, now had an Olympic gold medal to take home. 


Although the Olympic games had to have been the high point of Red's running career, perhaps because of disappointment at the 100- and 200-meter races in London, afterwards Red continued to compete in sprints. Immediately after the Olympics, Hamilton won the 200-meter race in Paris, setting a time of 22 seconds flat (Grinnell Herald, August 4, 1908). Back in the States, Hamilton competed in Amateur Athletic Union meets, including the Travers Island championship September 19 when Red won the 100 in 10 1/5 seconds (Des Moines Tribune, September 21, 1908).

But then the Amateur Athletic Union received complaints that alleged that Hamilton had lost his amateur status by having competed for a cash prize in a Sioux City race (Chicago Tribune, October 8, 1908). To put it as one newspaper did, Frank had "sullied himself by racing against a negro for a fiduciary consideration" (ibid., October 9, 1908). While AAU officials investigated, allegations against Hamilton penetrated the press, which could only have complicated things for Red. Finally in December the AAU "temporarily suspended" Frank, who "neither affirmed nor denied the charge" (Normal Eyte, December 16, 1908). As spring broke across the plains, the AAU restored Hamilton to good standing, having been provided evidence that proved that Hamilton could not have been in Sioux City on the day in question (ibid., April 21, 1909).

1911 University of Louisville Yearbook, The Colonel, p. 81

Whether the smudge on his reputation ever lifted is unclear, but Red certainly continued to race throughout 1909. Newspapers speculated upon his chances at making the 1910 Olympic squad, but Hamilton himself seems not to have set his hat to return to the international track. Of course, he led the University of Louisville track team and also bent himself to the study of medicine, emerging with an MD in 1911. By this time Frank, who turned 28 in 1911, was coaching high school runners in Louisville, his peak performances now behind him (Louisville Courier-Journal, April 9, 1911).


Record of the November 1911 Marriage Between William Hamilton and Shirley McLennon

That same year Dr. William F.  Hamilton opened his medical practice in Baxter, Iowa. In late November he married, taking Shirley McLennan (1883-1952) as his bride. Within a few years, the Hamiltons moved to Marshalltown, where Red practiced medicine for almost thirty years. Before long they welcomed to the family two daughters—Shirley (1914-1957) and Sally (1917-1978) (who briefly attended Grinnell College 1936-37). Frank's brothers remained in central Iowa, where they died and were buried. But midway through World War II, Frank decided to move to Southern California where he passed the last decade or so of his life, still practicing medicine. He died August 1, 1955, and was buried in the Glendale section of Forest Lawn Cemetery. No one has yet felt the need to provide a photograph of Frank's grave which, like his Olympic achievements, now stands forgotten. But back on that muggy July day in 1908 London, Frank "Red" Hamilton was a gold-winning Olympic champion.


As often happens, I owe this story to friends who brought Red Hamilton to my attention. I had never heard of Hamilton, but then Martha Pinder, John Kissane, and Harley McIlrath included me in a small hurricane of emails about Hamilton. Harley was especially assiduous in seeking out details of the Hamiltons, and generously shared his findings with us all. Harley knows a lot more about Red Hamilton than I will ever know, and I hope that he will find the occasion to tell the whole story, and not just the fragment that I present here. But I owe Harley, Martha, and John my thanks for including me in this historical scavenger hunt, and for generously sharing with me the numerous fruits of their historical searches: thank you!