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Don Gehrmann — March, 2011
Don Gehrmann was a member of the 1948 United States Olympic team in the 1,500 meters where he finished seventh in London in 3:54.4. He won the 1948 Olympic Trials 1,500 meters with a time of 3:52.2. Don narrowly missed making the 1952 Olympic squad, finishing fourth in the 1952 Olympic Trials 800 meters in 1:51.2. He won 39 consecutive major mile races from 1948 to 1951. At the Millrose Games he won the Wanamaker Mile four straight years from 1949 to 1952. Don held the World Records for both the indoor and outdoor 1,000 yard runs. He is a 1950 graduate of the University of Wisconsin where he won NCAA titles at 1,500 meters in 1948 and the mile in 1949 and 1950. The Wisconsin Badger was two-time runner up at the NCAA Cross Country Championships in 1948 and 1949. Don holds the record for the most Big Ten titles with twelve including four straight mile wins. He won two Big Ten individual Cross Country crowns and led the Badgers to two team titles. Three times he was named the Drake Relays Outstanding Performer. He graduated from Pulaski High School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where highlights included WIAA State Cross Country Championships in 1944 and 1945 and State Mile titles in 1945 and 1946. His personal best times include: 880y – 1:50.7; 1,500m – 3:50.6; 1,000y – 2:08.2; Mile – 4:07.5 and 2-Mile – 9:08.2. Don has been inducted into the University of Wisconsin Athletics Hall of Fame, the State of Wisconsin HOF, the Drake Relays HOF and Madison HOF. He earned a Masters degree in Educational Psychology and is a retired school teacher and school administrator. He resides near Madison, Wisconsin with his wife, Lori, of 60 years and has five children, 15 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. Don was kind enough to spend one and a half hours on the telephone in February, 2011.
GCR:You represented the United States at the 1948 Olympics in London in the 1,500 meters. Since it was the first Olympics in 12 years due to World War II, what was the feeling for you and others to run for our country in the land of one of our staunchest allies?
DGI had just turned 20 years old and was the second youngest member of the Olympic team so I very much appreciated making the U.S. team. It was an honor to represent the United States. At that time the Olympics were in a way an afterthought because the big goal was to make the American team. The Olympics weren’t such a big event for the general population because very few people had televisions and there wasn’t anything close to the publicity that there has been in recent decades. But it was a popular happening for those times.
GCR:With only four years of running under your belt as a University of Wisconsin sophomore, was it a bit daunting to be competing on such a big stage?
DGI hadn’t been running that long since I started late in high school so it was quite a quick change from not even running competitively to being in the Olympics. But I always ran to do my best and to win so I didn’t have any other mindset.
GCR:As the only non-European to make the 1,500 meter final, you ran to a seventh place finish. What are some of your memories as to how the race developed, your tactics and whether or not your inexperience in international competition prevented you from possibly finishing closer to or in the medals?
DGI was young and inexperienced and ran into some very good Scandinavians. Also, the track was muddy and under water in places and I kind of tripped around the last turn. I couldn’t see the curb, stepped on it and fell down to one knee. I picked myself right up but didn’t have enough left after that to move up toward the front runners. I appreciated being seventh in the Olympics but it was the worst race I ran over a period of several years. I think I was a little young to get one of the three medals though I could have placed a bit higher if I had raced better.
GCR:You finished third in your qualifying heat to make the final. Was this an all-out effort which tired you for the final or did you comfortably kick to a qualifying spot?
DGIt wasn’t a problem for me to make the final as I had enough of a kick to beat most of the other fellows. We had to place in the top three in our heat so I just watched third place and concentrated on passing that runner so I didn’t expend too much energy.
GCR:What else of the Olympic experience stands out including the Opening Ceremonies, other track and field competition or other events you may have attended?
DGThe Opening Ceremonies were the greatest. It’s something that we were not accustomed to as the Olympics hadn’t been run in 12 years due to World War II. At our ages we were all too young to remember much from the last Olympics back in 1936. It was a great thrill to be a part of those thousands of athletes, boys and girls, who were there in London. I did attend some of the other track events, but not too many as I wanted to get rest for my races. I didn’t get to see other sporting competition as we were either training or resting.
GCR:After the Olympics were there any certain competitions in Europe where you raced exceedingly well?
DGAfter the Olympics they split the U.S. team up and we raced in several countries. I went to Paris, France; Brussels, Belgium and Prague, Czechoslovakia. The team that I went with included three of the guys who ran on the 440 yard relay. In Paris they needed a fourth runner for the relay so I ran a 110 yard leg with them. We ran two-tenths of a second faster than when they won the Olympic Gold medal. All three of our handoffs were perfect.
GCR:Is there anything outside of your racing that was particularly memorable from your first taste of international travel?
DGAfter the Olympics when I was racing in Prague, Czechoslovakia we got a telephone call from the mayor of Prague who wanted to have breakfast with me the next morning. Here I was at only 20 years old coming just a few weeks earlier from Pulaski on the south side of Milwaukee and I was having breakfast with the mayor of Prague. It was outstanding for me at that time.
GCR:At the 1948 Olympic Trials you won the 1,500 meter final to make the U.S. Olympic team. How did you feel your chances were before the race?
DGI had won the nationals and all of the other races I’d competed in that year so I felt pretty good. As for my top foes, I didn’t know much about Clem Eischen or Roland Sink, but knew they were good. Jerry Karver from Penn State was another top entrant, so those three were the runners I had heard of and seemed to be the main competition. I went into the race to win it no matter who I was running against. That is the way I ran every race – to win. I didn’t care what my time was. My philosophy was that when you were running races you aimed to come in first place.
GCR:Was it more exciting to make the team or to win the race?
DGMaking the team would have been exciting in itself, but if you have a chance to win then you should always go for it. Eischen and Sink ended up second and third and Karver, who finished in fourth place, missed making the team by about four inches. That’s the tough thing as many years of training ended up with him missing by so little. Then we who made the team took one train to Chicago so we could next head to New York while Jerry took another train back east. So, while winning was outstanding for me, making the team was the main goal and very thrilling.
GCR:Over the years times in most events have gotten faster due to improved training, nutrition or lengthening of careers due to professionalism, but great runners are always measured by their championships. You won NCAA championships in the outdoor mile twice (4:09.6 in 1949 and 4:12.4 in 1950 and the 1,500 meters (3:54.3) in 1948. Were there any competitors who challenged for the victory in any of those years?
DGProbably 95% of my races were won in the final sprint no matter what race or how fast we were running. As I mentioned, I didn’t run for time. In the NCAA Championships it seemed that my competitors didn’t have the sprint that I did, so those three races weren’t that difficult for me to win. Nobody even tried to take the pace out fast as I don’t think there were any collegians that were able to do that. My main American competitors in the mile were all out of college.
GCR:In the Big Ten Conference you won 12 titles which still stands as a record. How much emphasis was placed on the conference meet and were there any especially memorable races due to tight competition or a final kick to secure the victory?
DGThe Conference meet was more important than the NCAAs as we ran with teammates and as a team. Plus running with the same teammates for a few years we got to know each other well. We did win the 1951 indoor conference team title which was a great thrill. As a freshman there was a half miler, Herb Martin from Michigan, who was difficult for me to beat as he had a good sprint. Bob Rayburn from Illinois also gave me trouble my freshman year. But the next three years I was able to win comfortably. The runner I will give the most credit to is Herb Martin of Michigan as he was the only runner who had enough speed to keep up with me. He was a Conference champ at 800 meters and was a teammate of mine on the 1948 Olympic team.
GCR:You were known as ‘Mr. Mile’ based on many races including your four straight Big Ten mile victories. What is the significance of your conference mile racing as, not only did you earn this title, but you were voted the greatest miler in the first 50 years of the Big Ten Conference and also selected the greatest miler at the 100-year anniversary of the Big Ten Conference?
DGAs time goes by it is great to know that I was recognized as the top miler in the first 50 years of the Big Ten Conference as there have been many great milers. Then to be selected five decades later to the 100-year team was a grand honor.
GCR:Along with championships and race times, runners are recognized for their consistency. What does it say that you took first place in 87 of 99 collegiate races (ranging from 880 yards to two miles) and won 39 consecutive major mile races from 1948 to 1951?
DGYou have noted the most significant thing in my running – in order to win 39 races in a row against the greatest national and international competition, it is very difficult to get yourself up physically and mentally for every one of those races. The most important thing in my career was sustaining those victories 39 times in a row. It did take some luck in not being very ill – sometimes I had a cold, but nothing serious. I also was fortunate not to have any muscle pulls or other major injuries that could have stopped me.
GCR:Other than the 1950 Wanamaker Mile which we will discuss in more detail, were there any other mile races that pushed you to your limit, tactics were needed as you were boxed in or you used a truly outstanding kick to secure the victory?
DGNear the end of the streak I did start to get boxed in when teammates ran against me. What I remember most isn’t from one of the 39 races I won in a row, but from what would have been the 40th. Fred Wilt and Stuart Ray from the New York Athletic Club were ahead of me on the last turn with Fred Wilt in the lead. When I tried to get around Stuart Ray he wouldn’t let me pass him. When I finally got around Stuart I couldn’t catch Fred. So the team tactics which ended my winning streak are what stand out.
GCR:Three times you were named the Drake Relays Outstanding performer based on your many great relay legs resulting in Wisconsin victories. How tough was it to come from behind in the 1949 Distance Medley to just catch Bill Mack from Michigan State at the finish to pull out the win for your relay teammates Gene Whipple, Mel Goldin and Jim Urquhart?
DGOh yes, I remember that relay as I was about 100 yards behind Bill Mack when I got the baton. Bill was a very good miler, but was more of a sustained pace runner than a fast finisher. I slowly crept up on him each lap and just did nip him. It was an exciting run for the spectators as most of my races tended to be.
GCR:The following year in the 1950 Drake Relays Sprint Medley you anchored teammates Leroy Collins, Jim Englander, Allen Butler with a 1:53.5 on a cold day with temperatures in the 40s on a muddy track. Did conditions make it comparatively easier in a way for you as you felt you had more guts than your opponents?
DGFor me it was very tough to run in those conditions as I needed a track that I could put my feet on and they would stay there. We were running on cinders and I needed a track to be in good shape to be able to use my 48 second quarter mile speed. That track was soft and muddy and I may have been a bit lucky to pull that one out and win it for my relay team.
GCR:You were twice the Big Ten Cross Country Champion and two times led Wisconsin to team titles. Compare and contrast the joy of winning individually versus as a team.
DGIn cross country it was all about the team as I got very close to the guys I ran with during those four years. We ran so much together and got to know each other very well. The teammates who are still alive are close friends of mine to this day and we still talk on the phone. What I liked the most about cross country were the friendships with my teammates and our team spirit.
GCR:At the 1947 NCAA Cross Country Championships you came in 42nd place. How was the transition from high school to collegiate cross country with many top competitors and a longer distance?
DGIt was difficult stepping up from a two-mile cross country distance in high school to four miles in college. I didn’t care much for the two-mile, so it was a hard transition to four miles. It was also tough running against juniors and seniors who had more seasoning and experience under their belts. Luckily, I had enough natural ability to stay with most competitors and to move strongly at the finish. I was ill at the NCAAs that year and had to stop and walk in so my place wasn’t as high as if I had been healthy.
GCR:The following year in 1948 you finished in second place at the NCAAs ten seconds behind Rhode Island’s Robert Black. What were the critical moves he made to win the race?
DGHe was very strong in the middle of the race and built up a big lead. I tried to catch him at the end, but he had enough left that I couldn’t make up the distance.
GCR:Your senior year at Wisconsin you closed on Black, but he still beat you by six seconds as you were again the NCAA X-C runner up. Since you both were familiar with each other, did this race develop differently?
DGWe both tried something – I tried to keep up with him and he made sure that I couldn’t! He took a big lead like he was never going to stop. Of course, he did slow down and I started to catch him but again he had enough to hold me off. I give him credit as the best cross country runner that I ever ran against. With everyone else I could stay with them and outrun them at the end, but not with Robert Black.
GCR:In your junior and senior years Bill Mack from Michigan State finished sixth and third at the NCAA X-C meet, twelve seconds and four seconds behind you respectively. How strong of a conference foe was Mack?
DGIn other meets where we were running I would wait until close to the end to take the lead against Bill and didn’t have any trouble doing so. At the NCAA meet, since Robert Black took such a big lead, I didn’t stay back with the chase pack and moved into second place by myself early in the race. I couldn’t stay with the pack as they were going at too slow of a pace for me to have a chance of winning. I knew that if I wanted to catch Black I had to stay as close as I could.
GCR:You first gained track notoriety your freshman year at Wisconsin with a 9:12 indoor two-mile where you were less than a second behind Forrest Efaw and John Twomey and a third place finish in the AAU 1,500 meters behind Gerry Karver and Bill Mack. Is this when you started thinking you could compete with the top U.S. middle distance runners for a chance to make the 1948 Olympic team?
DGThat was the first time I ever ran the two-mile and it was at the Chicago Relays. I was too immature as a runner as I didn’t think I had any chance to win the race. As it turned out I could have won. Even with that race and how I raced at the AAU 1,500 meters my freshman year; it was still too early for me to begin thinking about the Olympics. I didn’t think at all about making the Olympic team at that stage when I was a freshman.
GCR:With your success in cross country, indoor track racing and outdoor track, which was your favorite and why?
DGAll three were great experiences for me. My favorite as a team sport, getting to know my teammates and to have good friends was cross country. In track it was a thrill getting to know some outstanding athletes from the U.S. and other countries. I became friends with pole vaulter, Bob Richards, and 400/800 runner, Mal Whitfield. FBI runner, Fred Wilt, is another whom I got to know well. When you get to the top like that you understand how hard everyone else trains because you know how hard you train. Therefore there is a great amount of mutual respect amongst the champions in the various events. That was outstanding to me as an athlete to be friends with these fellows and to respect each other. Indoor track racing was my favorite. Almost no one could beat me indoors because I learned how to run indoors in high school in a room we called the ‘bicycle room.’ It was a small room where the kids parked their bikes and it was about 16 laps to the mile. I learned how to lean and make tight turns. In high school we raced indoors on a gym floor so I also learned how to run on slippery board basketball gym floors. This gave me an advantage against foreign runners who didn’t have much indoor experience on the boards. I really liked the close crowds indoors that went all around the track and made it more fun than outdoor track running.
GCR:The Wanamaker Mile at the Millrose Games was the premier indoor mile before your time and up to the present day with champions including Glenn Cunningham six times in the 1930s, Eamonn Coghlan seven times in the 1970s and 1980s and Bernard Lagat eight times in recent years. How do your four Wanamaker Mile wins stack up with your other great achievements?
DGFirst, it is amazing how many times Cunningham, Coghlan and Lagat won as I can appreciate the mental and physical conditioning needed to win so many times. I’d have to say that my best indoor track accomplishment is winning that race four times as each time the meet organizers would bring together a very strong field. It was a big thrill to win because of the international field and how they would play the national anthems of the different competitors. The Wanamaker Mile was the ‘magnet event’ of the evening and nothing really got going until 10:00 at night when it was held.
GCR:At the 1949 Millrose Games you and your coach, Guy Sundt, planned a fast pace of 58, 2:02 and 3:04 to aim for a sub-4:05 mile. After being on pace for a half mile the pace slipped in the third quarter. How did you adjust your strategy to beat Holland’s Willy Slykhuis, who earned bronze medals in both the 1,500 meters and 5,000 meters in London, and capture your first Wanamaker Mile?
DGEven though I was running with my Wisconsin uniform on, I was representing our country and it was a thrill to do so and to win. The pace relaxed in the third quarter as the leader slowed down. Slykhuis was known as the fastest sprinter in the world and the ‘king of the finish.’ I went after him off of the final turn and only won by a foot or so as we were timed in 4:09.5 and 4:09.6. Evidently he was very dejected as he was supposed to run a few more races but left the country and went back home. I was excited as I was young at the time and it was my first Wanamaker Mile.
GCR:The 1950 Wanamaker Mile had one of the closest and controversial finishes in the history of the Millrose Games. You seemed to be off of your top form as Yale’s George Wade, the Illinois AC’s John Twomey and co-favorite, Fred Wilt, were ahead of you in the final quarter mile. What was your thought process as Wilt took the lead with two and a half laps to go and you were way back in fourth place on the 11 laps to a mile board track with short straight-aways and tight, high banked turns?
DGWhen I was back in fourth place I wasn’t concerned as there was still plenty of time left in the race. But going around the last turn with about 40 yards to go was where it all came to a head.
GCR:You closed to within two yards of Wilt with 20 yards to go before just catching him at the tape. The judges disagreed about who won and the photo finish pictures were inconclusive. Did you get that feeling that runners have when they catch someone for the victory or was it too close for you to tell?
DGFred and I had raced so many times and had been in this same position with him ahead of me on the final turn so what he was doing was drifting more to the outside to nudge me up the track. Each time we raced it got harder to get by him and that time I just nipped him by a little bit. Immediately after the race it seemed that the judges were saying I had won, but then there was some disagreement until the head judge ruled I had won. I did win the race and know I won even though it was very close. Since I had run so many tight races like that, my judgment of what I needed to do to win got real good as to everything that was happening – my speed, his speed, how much distance to the finish and where the finish line was all at the same time.
GCR:You were credited with winning ‘the longest mile in history’ as the finish line judges could not decide who won, the head judge broke the tie and acknowledged you the winner, weeks later the AAU got involved and declared Wilt the winner, that decision was appealed and eleven months after the race you were finally declared the official winner. Did you and Fred Wilt discuss this race in subsequent years?
DGWe didn’t really discuss this race as it was behind us when we focused on the next races. We were friendly rivals and at one time in the future when Fred raced in Milwaukee he even stayed at my house. I was married at the time and had a couple of kids.
GCR:How was the reception you received from the crowds at Madison Square Garden where you raced so many times indoors?
DGI ran so often in Madison Square Garden in the Millrose Games, the KFC meet, the AAU meet and the NYAC meet that I must have raced 16 to 20 times there. My biggest memory of the crowds is my last year when I took my warm up lap before the mile and most of the fans who were there knew it was probably my last year to be racing. As I passed them they stood and applauded. These fans were track buffs and had been there meet after meet, year after year and showed their appreciation to me for the racing I had done in Madison Square Garden and I in turn appreciated them.
GCR:You seemed to have an affinity for the 1,000 yard distance, winning Indoor titles in 1952 and 1953 and breaking the World Record both Indoors and Outdoors. What was your favorite racing distance?
DGThe only reason I established World Records at 1,000 yards is that the runners I was racing were so fast that the only way I could win was to run a World Record time! We actually broke the half mile Indoor World Record when running that 1,000 yards, but it didn’t count because it wasn’t the official finish line. My favorite distance though was the mile.
GCR:When you graduated from Wisconsin in 1950, you married your high school sweetheart, went to work and graduate school and had two young children by the time the 1952 Olympics came around. How hard was it to balance work, family and training?
DGBack in the early 1950s our priorities were on our job and family whereas today it is on winning money. Back then there was no incentive to race as it cost us money. I could turn in my meal receipts and ticket vouchers but everything else I spent came out of my pocket. Family came first so by the end of my career I wasn’t training too much. When the Olympics came around in 1952 I wasn’t focused on them even though I had set a couple of 1,000 yard World Records earlier that year. In the middle of summer I was very conscientious about my job and supporting my wife and two babies. In order to make an Olympic team you needed ability and incentive – I had ability, but not the incentive. The desire to win had left me as I was extremely busy at work. I was the Public Relations Director for the American Automobile Association and was in charge of their 50th Year Anniversary Conference. So that was more important at the time than training for the Olympics. That would not be true today because of the money involved in the sport.
GCR:Is this why you decided to step down to the 800 meters to try to make the 1952 Olympic team? How disappointing was it when you were passed in the home stretch and finished in fourth place?
DGI wasn’t in good enough shape for the 1,500 meters so that is why I dropped down to the 800 meters. It was disappointing that I was beaten and passed, but not so that I didn’t make the team as I wasn’t in position to take six weeks off from work and to be away from my family for that long. It’s just too bad that the Olympics came along at the wrong time.
GCR:Earlier in the 1952 Olympic year you set the Indoor 1000 yard World Record and beat Bill Nankeville in White City during the British Games weekend to set the Outdoor 1000 yard World Record. Did you possibly run your peak performances that year too early?
DGBill Nankeville was a good runner, but couldn’t match my finishing speed. The only reason I set the World Record is that he set a fast enough pace that I had to set a record to beat him by the slim margin of 2:11.1 to 2:11.2. It wasn’t that I was in peak shape, but I wasn’t as busy at work as I was in the summer.
GCR:What transpired that day that ended up with you racing at 440 yards after setting the 1,000 yard World Record?
DGWe had seven runners at White City representing the U.S. and 1,000 yards was the only race I was scheduled to run that day. After I won the 1,000 yard race I was up in the stands where they had an area for the athletes with drinks, hot dogs and hamburgers. I was drinking a soda and eating hot dogs. The U.S. quarter miler had pulled a muscle a couple of days before the meet and couldn’t race. The race organizers asked if I would run the quarter mile as they wanted to have an American in the race. I decided to go ahead and try it as I had nothing better to do. I won the race in about 47.9 and beat all of England’s top quarter milers. At the banquet that night the talk was that no one could believe that an American miler could beat the top British quarter milers. That may have been my greatest accomplishment! The stories in the U.S. newspapers focused on my World Record for 1,000 yards set earlier in the day, but to me winning the quarter mile was a bigger feat.
GCR:In your final Indoor track season in 1953 you barely lost to Mal Whitfield at 880 yards 1:50.9 to 1:51.4, were narrowly beaten for the AAU 1,000 yard title by Germany’s Olympic Bronze Medalist at 800 meters, Heinz Ulzheimer and went out with a flourish in your hometown of Milwaukee as you almost beat Len Truex who ran a 4:07.8 mile. Were you satisfied with your running career and ready to retire from competition?
DGI don’t remember too much about that season as I wasn’t in top shape. The New York Athletic Club had asked me to move to New York to run for them and they said they could get me a good job, but I didn’t want any part of that as my family and job in Milwaukee were more important than moving to keep focusing on my running. I was ready to retire in 1952, but since I hadn’t raced for about six months I thought I would come back in early 1953 and run a few races. In the U.S. at that time I was like other runners whose family and job came first. That was the situation much more so for us than the Europeans who had athletic clubs with good benefits so many of them didn’t have to work a true job. But in the U.S. we were true amateurs. During that final race with Max Truex in my home town of Milwaukee of course I got a good hand from the crowd as I had run in Milwaukee in high school and had represented the state of Wisconsin with my college colors.
GCR:Before your collegiate days you burst onto the track scene as a sophomore at Milwaukee Pulaski High School with a second in the mile at the City Championships. Did you have much running experience or were you always one of the ‘fast kids’ when you played other sports?
DGOn the Milwaukee playground I played all sports so track was just another sport which I tried. I had some natural ability which helped me a lot as I seemed right away to be faster than most of the fellows. In all sports it was very evident that I had running ability. Even in neighborhood games with my friends I was fast. There was one game where we would divide up into teams of about six on a side and would use the entire block. One team would have to catch the other team and tag them. After playing a few times they wouldn’t let me play as no one could ever catch me. It was the same in tag football as I was quick and could dodge and change directions – it was just something I was born with. My God-given natural running ability served me well when I was on the track team and the newspapers seemed to like to play it up before the races to build some anticipation for track fans.
GCR:You won four Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association State Championships at the mile distance your junior and senior (4:28.8) years and in cross country both years. How tight was the competition and what was the effect of an infected tooth you had during the early part of your senior track season?
DGWhen I was a tenth grader there was a fellow named Windy Gross from South Division High School who gave me some competition, but he dropped down to the half mile the next year because he didn’t have a chance to beat me in the mile. My last two years in high school in cross country and in the mile there wasn’t any competition for me in the state of Wisconsin. In all four state meets where I won there wasn’t anyone close to me. That infected tooth took a lot out of me – I couldn’t train hard because there was so much pressure in my mouth. It didn’t affect my winning, but was a factor in my conditioning and I probably could have run faster. It has been so long that I had forgotten about it as no one has mentioned it in so many years.
GCR:Milwaukee had a tradition of fast milers with Ernie Bastian and Wally Mehl from Wauwatosa and Chuck Fenske from West Allis – the latter two who later starred at the University of Wisconsin. Were you cognizant of Milwaukee’s track history and aiming to join these great milers in your home city?
DGI have never been a person who looked back at the great athletes who came before me as ones who I wanted to emulate or exceed. For me athletics was fun and I liked to compete. I competed to win as second place didn’t matter to me - it was fun to win. I ran my best in all of my races and so I had that winning instinct in high school where I raced for first place. My times or place in history weren’t of consequence to me.
GCR:What were the main ingredients to your success that were contributed by your high school coach, Stan Kezele, and college coaches, Thomas Jones and Guy Sundt?
DGThe main contribution from all of my coaches was helping me to be mentally strong. I respected all of my coaches. I didn’t get to know my high school coach too well as the racing season was short. Tom Jones and Guy Sundt were two of the greatest people I met during those years. Tom was one of the coaches of the 1948 Olympic team and Guy Sundt took over as coach at Wisconsin afterward and later was promoted to athletic director. I raced for my coaches, for my friends, for my family and finally for myself because winning was a lot of fun.
GCR:What was your typical training in high school and college and did you run year around?
DGI wasn’t one who did the type of distance running that top runners do today. If I had done so I probably would have been much faster. Also, I may have developed more quickly and been able to take the pace out faster rather than relying on my sprint at the end of races. My over distance run in high school was a two and-a-quarter mile run which was barely longer than our two-mile cross country race distance. I did that over distance run on Mondays. In college we also did an over distance run on Mondays which was four and-a-quarter miles, again just longer than our four-mile cross country races. We ran out to Picnic Point. On Tuesdays we did sprint workouts. On Wednesdays in college during indoor season we often did a three-quarter mile time trial on a twelve-laps to the mile indoor board track which I could do in three minutes flat. In high school and college we started training for cross country season in August, after the fall season went right into indoor track season, took a break at Christmastime and then went into outdoor season which went into June. So the only time I had off from running was in July. I was very busy in college with my classes and running so many big meets that took me out of town on weekends.
GCR:What were some of your favorite training seasons for cross country, indoor track and outdoor track in high school, college and beyond both in the early and mid-season and when you were rounding into top form?
DGThe first thing I can tell you is what was my least favorite training session and that was the over distance training of four miles or more – it wasn’t fun and I didn’t really care much for it. Luckily we had great scenery in Madison for those distance runs. I liked all of the fast sessions where we worked on speed and pace. We did a lot of 200s. I would finish every practice with something fast. For example, if one day I was running one and-a-quarter miles, the last quarter would be fast and close to all out for the last 200 yards. Coach Tom Jones called that a ‘build up’ and we did it often. That really helped my finishing kick.
GCR:How satisfying is it to help others succeed compared to your own personal accomplishments? How much more difficult is it to instill in others the necessary discipline, focus and mental toughness?
DGWhen I coached for 13 years I really stressed to the kids that they needed to be focused, work hard and be tough. I liked coaching track and cross country and helping kids very much. We did well, won some championships and it was a good feeling helping the kids to improve and achieve. Unfortunately when I made the job switch to the state administration level I didn’t have the opportunity to coach any longer as I was not associated with a particular school.
GCR:There were outstanding distance runners back in your day such as Olympic Champions Mal Whitfield and Horace Ashenfelter and distance stars Fred Wilt and Curt Stone, who seem to have faded from memory in recent years. Is this just the passage of time or are there other factors?
DGTime is a reason as all of us are now over eighty years old. People remember me around the University of Wisconsin as in the Kohl Center there is a big display about my running career. But outside of Madison or Milwaukee no one has heard of me unless they are eighty years old and a track fan. And it is like that for the runners who were my contemporaries.
GCR:You were named to several Halls of Fame including the State of Wisconsin Athletic HOF, the Drake Relays HOF, University of Wisconsin HOF and the Madison Pen and Mike Club Hall of Fame. How special is this recognition for your athletic exploits?
DGIt is always very special and appreciated. As a Milwaukee high school athlete and a young man from Wisconsin it was great to run for the state university and then to be recognized in my state. I was born here, bred here, received my education here and have many friends here because of that. There are great athletes who went off to school in other places and aren’t as fortunate as I am to have this Wisconsin community that I have been a part of during my entire life. So the Hall of Fame honors are very dear to me.
GCR:With professionalism entering track and field in the past three decades, do you ever wonder what might have been if shoe companies and other sponsors enabled you to train regularly and compete into at least your late twenties?
DGI wish we would have had the chance back then as it would have been great to keep competing and to support my family in that way. I was a teacher and involved in other aspects of education for my entire life and worked hard for the little money we had. If I were running today I would probably be a millionaire.
GCR:What is your current fitness regimen and what are your future health and fitness goals?
DGThe best thing I do for fitness now is to take my dog for regular walks. My wife and I have had 21 dogs in our 60 years of marriage. It has been a very fine life that I have had. I was fortunate to have some athletic ability and was lucky to have met many wonderful people, develop great friendships and get excellent guidance because of athletics. We try to eat right, take care of ourselves and hope to have many more years together.
GCR:How did the character traits you learned from competitive running and racing carry over positively into your work as a school teacher and administrator and your home life as a husband and father?
DGI learned that if you want to become a champion and wish to remain a champion that you have to do more than the next guy who also is striving to be a champion. That philosophy followed me throughout my life. The hard work and dedication needed for running has been a very positive feature in my life and was helpful as a father and a grandfather. We enjoy attending some of our grandkids’ basketball games and even some of our great-grandkids’ wrestling matches. I see a little bit of my competitiveness in them and I like that.
GCR:Is there any advice you would give to children and adults who wish to succeed in running or other sports?
DGTo be competitive it just doesn’t come to you – you have to work at it. In order to do well it takes a work initiative to get ready both mentally and physically. If you have some God-given ability and good training habits you can become a champion – anybody can become a champion. Also, it is much more fun to win, but if you do, you must do so in a respectful manner and give credit and praise to those who come in second and third place. Those runners train as hard as you do and it may just be that you have more talent or a little more luck on that day.
GCR:Are there any major lessons you have learned during your life from growing up in Wisconsin during the Depression and World War II, the discipline of running and adversity you have faced that you would like to share with my readers?
DGI was brought up in The Great Depression since I was born in 1927. My mom and dad had to be very conscious of their money as did almost everyone we knew as very few people had much money. We lived on the south side of Milwaukee in a neighborhood that was a little less than middle class, but my dad was a hard worker. He was a machinist and worked in factories in Milwaukee. My mom had been brought up on a farm and had typical traits developed in a farming life. I had the qualities of my parents, appreciated what I had and that continued through the rest of my life. When I reflect back on the hard times that my parents encountered, I realize that as a child and teenager I learned to work hard, compete to do my best, respect others and to appreciate what I did have. In my family today we still have those traits that were instilled in me during my childhood and it has led to a good life.
 Inside Stuff
Hobbies/InterestsWhen I was a teenager I made model planes from balsa wood. I did this while I was in high school and involved in running. A couple of years ago I picked up on this hobby and started making them again. Outdoors I do quite a bit of landscaping which probably goes back to my mother’s background as a farmer. My wife and I have season tickets for a series of plays. We live a modest life and are happy to be healthy enough to enjoy what we do
NicknamesSince my given name is Donald, then ‘Don’ could be called my nickname, though it is really just a shortened version of my name
Favorite movies‘Gone with the Wind’ and old classic movies
Favorite TV showsWe take a break every day at 5:00 and spend an hour watching ‘All in the Family’ reruns with good old Archie Bunker. The Bob Hope Show was another favorite
Favorite songs‘Til the End of Time’ is ‘our song’ from when we my wife and I were married. ‘You’ll Never Know how Much I Love You’ is my favorite
Favorite booksI like to read ‘shoot-em-up’ Westerns
First carIn 1950 after graduation from the University of Wisconsin I got my first car which was a new 1950 Chevrolet. I had saved some money while working during college and my parents chipped in to help me and that is how I got that car
Current carWe drive a Honda Odyssey. Most of the time over the years we have had cars that could transport lots of kids. A long time ago we had station wagons, while recently it has been minivans
First jobsI worked as a sophomore, junior and senior in high school as a playground director at several playgrounds in Milwaukee. While I was in college I worked sometimes in the summers at a sheet metal shop, Louie Ranke Sheet Metal Works on Milwaukee’s south side. I started out at about 35 cents per hour
Post-collegiate jobsPublic Relations with the AAA, then I went into education which progressed from teaching to administration. I did coach track and cross country for 13 years at Wauwatosa East High School
Family, Children and SiblingsMy wife’s given name is Delores, but she goes by Lori. We have been together for 66 years and have been married for the last 60 years. She was my high school sweet heart; we were together through college and married in May of 1950 after I graduated. I was an only child and my wife had a sister. My wife has a problem with her hearing, has a heart condition and walks with a cane, but we get along alright. We like to live on lakes, have lived on seven lakes in our married life and moved back to a lakeside home just recently. We have a large family of five children, 15 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. They are all in Wisconsin except for one daughter in California and two grandkids in Ohio. Many still live close by in the Madison area or in Green Bay
PetsThroughout our lifetime my wife and I have had 21 dogs. We sometimes had two at a time. We have always had a dog and always will as they are our loyal companions. Currently we have a La-Chon which is a mix of a Lhasa Apso and Bichon Frise – a little white dog named Misty. We have had collies, St. Bernard’s, Chihuahuas and everything in between
Favorite breakfastCereal. When I was in high school and somewhat through college I ate Wheaties. It may have been because it was advertised as the ‘Breakfast of Champions,’ but I really liked the taste
Favorite mealHam and German-style potato salad
Favorite beveragesI drink no alcohol and never have. I like Caffeine Free Pepsi
First running memoryThe first one I remember that stands out is when I won my first City of Milwaukee Championship in cross country. It was during the fall of my first year in high school, which was my sophomore year as ninth grade was at the junior high school back then. Before high school I had never heard of cross country and had never run a cross country race in my life. So it is quite a memory winning my first of three city championships on the course at Estabrook Park
Running heroesI didn’t really have heroes, but when I was running in high school I heard of Gil Dodds who was a great miler for the University of Illinois. I wasn’t much of a historian in the sport of running
Greatest running momentsWinning the quarter mile at the British Games against their best quarter milers was one of the happiest moments for me as it was very unusual. Then of course making the 1948 U.S. Olympic team was a huge thrill since I was very young as a 20 year old college sophomore and we didn’t know if I would make the team. Also, many of my friends and family were able to drive down to Evanston, Illinois from Madison and Milwaukee to watch me compete in the Olympic Trials
Worst running momentsThere are two that stand out. The first is the Olympic final in 1948 when I could have done better, but may not have been ready as I was young and inexperienced. The second is the NCAA Cross Country Championships my sophomore year when I became ill during the race which is the only time that happened. I had a few other times where I was tripped up and fell in mile races, but was still able to get up and win
Childhood dreamsI loved all types of athletics. In Milwaukee they had a nighttime program called ‘The City of the Lighted School Houses.’ All of the schools and gyms were lit up for social programs and sports. I was a pitcher in baseball, played softball, basketball and all of the sports. I was an athlete all of my life as I enjoyed it, though I didn’t have any particular dream to excel in one sport
Funny memoriesAfter the 1948 Olympics when I raced in Paris, even though it was over 60 years ago, there was a noticeable difference in the morals and standards when compared to the United States. When we were about to start the mile the French miler, Marcel Hansein, had to go to the bathroom, so they held up the race, he went over to the edge of the track next to the stands and urinated right there! Nobody seemed to be bothered with that at all. Then we started the race. You would not have seen that in the U.S.
Embarrassing momentOne of my best friends, Tom Ward, forgot his racing shoes for the Big Ten Conference meet, but I never had anything like that happen to me
Favorite places to travelI enjoyed London and my wife and I have travelled there since I went to the Olympics. It is nice that English is spoken there. After London, I really like Paris
Final Comments from InterviewerIt was truly amazing and an honor to spend over 90 minutes chatting with one of America's greatest champions in the mile. Times are faster these days due to many factors including nutrition, training methods, synthetic tracks and lengthy professional careers, but Don Gehrmann excelled where it counts - at winning major races and championships. Who knows what might have been if his running career hadn't been cut short due to family and work priorities? This genuine man is relatively unknown to track fans though he has his place as one of the United States' greatest middle distance conmpetitors.