John McCluskey Reminisces about Manchester and the First Thanksgiving Day Road Race
by Marcia Krafjack and Susan Barlow, Manchester Historical Society
reprinted with permission


Marcia Krafjack, John’s niece, interviewed him in 2003. She said that at family gatherings when she was growing up, she saw quite a lot of Uncle John and his brother Joe, whose Olympic medal she never saw until his funeral. “They were not braggarts, that's for sure. At family gatherings, the only thing I ever heard about running were non-running stories about Bob Dougan, EarlYost, Johnny Kelly, Charlie Robbins, and Amby Burfoot. My cousin Joan called me one night from Baltimore to settle a bet with her husband. In the 1940s, our families used to share a cottage at Giant's Neck, and Joan thought she remembered Uncle Joe, who was stationed at the Sub Base at that time, stopping at the cottage with Yogi Berra. Her husband didn't believe her. I remembered his visit too, so she won the bet. We had no idea what the future held, and never snapped a picture.”

John McCluskey was born at home on April 12, 1909 in Manchester, where he attended elementary school and graduated from M.H.S. in 1930. He has retired from his medical practice and lives in Massachusetts with his wife.


My father, whose name was also John, arrived at Ellis Island in 1901, at age twenty-three. He had come from Northern Ireland, looking for a better life. He had twenty dollars, and a job waiting for him at Cheney Brothers, arranged by a friend. He returned to Ireland in 1903, to propose to young Catherine McStea. She accepted his ring and left her family for a new life in America. She never saw her parents again.

But his family, including his parents, three sisters, and a brother, all left Ireland together, taking steerage passage, for which my father paid, with money he had been saving. His father found work as groundskeeper for the Cheney family, and his sisters and brother found jobs in Cheney mills. The ladies made five dollars for a six-day, sixty-hour workweek. The men made nine dollars for the same hours.

My parents rented a four-room home on Eldridge Street. They had two roomers, which was the custom at that time, to help other Irish families get their start in a new land.

Their first child, James, was born in 1904, but died of diphtheria at age eleven. Mary was born in 1906, then me in 1909, on Easter Monday, the day of the tragic fire at House and Hale department store on Main Street. Joe was born in 1911 and became famous in Manchester for his running successes [Joe died in 2002]. Susanna was born in 1915, and became a nun in the Sisters of Mercy after high school. My sister Ellen was born in 1919.

In those days, peddlers visited the neighborhoods, selling their wares out of wagons. About 1918, my mother sent me out to the bakery wagon. Just as I climbed on the wagon step, the mules jumped and dumped the wagon on top of me, with all the baked goods from the wagon. My hip was damaged – not a true fracture. It mended with rest, although the bone was flattened out somewhat. The doctor came to the house to check on me, as Manchester didn’t have a hospital yet. I had to stay in bed for three or four weeks

I started running, but eventually had to stop because my hip bothered me. Years later, I went to Boston to have the hip replaced.

John Joins the Track Team at Manchester High School

After one year at Hartford Seminary, I decided I wasn’t going to be a priest. I attended Manchester High School, and started running on the track team. Pete Wigren had been track coach about six years. Pete said of my running that I was “going to be all right on the mile.” I said, “Oh no, wait until you see my brother, Joe, he can beat everyone here.” Joe was in the eighth grade then, but by his freshman year, he was winning all the races.

In 1927, when I was eighteen and still attending the Seminary, I ran in and won the first Thanksgiving Day race, called the Five Mile Road Race, although it was a little over five miles. I believe there were nine runners. Joe was too young to enter but he rode his bicycle alongside for most of the race. Lewis Lloyd, Manchester’s recreation director, came up with the idea of the race, and Frank Busch, also from the recreation department, assisted him, as did Coach Pete Wigren.

All the townspeople turned out to watch. The route then was different. We started on lower Main Street, ran up Mount Nebo Place, across the field, down a narrow path to a gate that only two or three runners could go through at a time, and behind a paper mill on Charter Oak Street. Then we followed what is today’s route up Highland to Wyllys, down Porter to East Center, and then down Main Street to the finish.

I finished in 29:46, and won a silver trophy cup that is one of my most prized possessions. It is engraved:

Recreation Center
Annual Cross Country Run
1st Prize
1927
John McCluskey

My mother was so proud and treasured that cup until she died at age ninety-nine. Little did any of us suspect what that race would become and what an athlete Joe would become. [Joe won the race on that course three times, and set the record for it. When the race was re-established in 1945, the course was altered. Joe won on this course in 1946. He also placed in the top ten several times.]

Joe’s paper route helped him keep in shape. He would run his entire paper route, and when he finished, he’d run on the track at the West Side oval. At one time he had three paper routes to help the family financially.

I had paper routes, too. At first I sold newspapers in the town streets and I would call, “Harold.” A lady stopped me and told me I should say, “Herald.” She was correcting my pronunciation! I always remembered that.

I worked at Glenney’s Men’s Shop, the A&P, and a meat market. I had a job building the trolley tracks into Hartford, which I enjoyed, and at a Hartford meat market. I’d go in on the trolley car, which cost around ten cents.

There were a lot of tobacco farms in town at that time. For about three summers, I worked four weeks in the shade tobacco fields. We picked four layers of the tobacco and put them on a string, and took them to the shed, where the leaves were hung to dry. Two weeks every summer, I worked on broadleaf tobacco in Buckland and some fields west of town. We cut the broadleaf and put six plants on a lath and took it to the shed to dry.

Tough Times During the Depression

I also had a job at the library as a general handyman. Joe took over this job when I entered the Seminary. Joe and I took any job we could get. I look back now at those Depression years – tough times – we contributed financial help to the family, giving a dollar or two whenever we could.

I made a rudimentary crystal set, and eventually a radio set where you put tubes in and turned the dial to get various stations. I listened to news of the Depression day after day, hearing that the shares had gone down, down. They were tough times.

I remember a sugar shortage. You’d get the word a store had sugar and everybody raced down to get a pound of sugar for five cents. We were fortunate to have fruit and vegetable gardens and chickens that provided food. I believe my father had saved a little money, because he was buying and selling real estate. We were able to manage by all of us helping out.

If a homeless person called at the back door, asking for something to eat, somehow, my mother was always able to provide a bowl of soup or piece of meat, and some Irish soda bread.

I went to Fordham University in New York. Vince Lombardi was playing football there and became famous. My brother Joe came to Fordham in 1929. We would send home a big box of dirty clothes; my mother would launder it and ship it back to us. We didn’t have student facilities for washing in those days and we saved money this way.

Joe and I got home about once a month. We had to hitchhike all the way. People would gladly pick you up and take you to New Haven, where you’d have to get another ride to Manchester.

Joe was so good at track that after a short time there, Fordham gave him a full scholarship. As a freshman, on the indoor track they used in the wintertime, he was up against Volmari Iso-Hollo (1908-1969) of Finland, who was very good. It was a handicap race. My brother was given a seventy-five yard handicap and he did very well in that race. That surprised New York, and was probably one of his big starts in track. He won a lot of races at college.

His Brother Joe Goes to the Olympics

Joe earned the names “the Fordham Flash” and “Shuffling Joe McCluskey,” a nickname for the unusual way that he shuffled his feet when he ran. In 1932, Joe represented the United States in the California Olympics. His specialty was the 3000-meter steeplechase race.

The townspeople raised money to send our father to see his son in the Olympics. Dad traveled part of the way with some of the team. He had an enjoyable trip and had a wonderful spot to view the Olympics. As far as my brother – he was running and saw the sign, “Four laps to go.” Joe told the official, “No. Three,” but was told to keep going. When the race was over, they came to Joe and apologized. They had made the runners go an extra lap, and Joe would’ve been second at the correct number of laps. The officials said they would run the race over if he wanted. Joe said it wouldn’t be fair to all the runners and he did not want to embarrass the American officials. He won the bronze medal for third place. He always said, “You only run a race once.” Iso-Hollo won that race, the same runner he competed against in college.

A lot of neighbors and friends had come over to our house to listen to the race on our radio – our family was one of the first in town to have a radio. There was a parade for Joe when he came home. The townspeople met him at the train in Hartford and had a motorcade to Center Park in Manchester and gave a program for his benefit. We wore our best clothes and we were all so proud.

Joe ran in the 1936 Olympics in Germany, but did not win a medal. There was much unrest in Europe. Hitler was on the reviewing stand. Joe and Jesse Owens received a scowl from him as they refused to salute him when they marched by.

John’s Medical Career and Retirement

After Fordham, I went to med school, and opened my practice in 1941. My mother was so proud of me that after I got my degree, she always called me Dr. John. I had my office in my house in Brockton, Massachusetts. Helen and I were married in 1944, and raised our son and daughter in that house. I eventually had another doctor join my practice. At age sixty-five, I retired, and three doctors took over my practice. I heard that they said, “ I don’t know how he handled this practice, it’s so busy.” As a general practitioner, I took out 400 tonsils and delivered 150 babies in one year. That’s something you don’t see today – people all want specialists, and that is fine with me.

We moved to Duxbury, Massachusetts, before I retired. I worked at Braintree Rehab when I was seventy. Then, ten years later, I went to work in the prison. I was eighty then. Not that I needed the job – it’s just that I had a fascination for treatment and I enjoyed the work.

look back at the early days in Manchester. We had wonderful parents – an example to all of us. We all got along and there was mutual respect. I think a lot of Manchester. The town always treated us right, and we were very grateful.

Marcia Krafjack and Susan Barlow are members of the Manchester Historical Society, and conduct oral history interviews. If you would like to contribute photos or memoirs, please call the Historical Society at 860-647-9983, or use the Contact page on this web site by clicking here.



Help Preserve Road Race History!

The Manchester Road Race Committee, Inc., seeks personal articles and memorabilia related to the Road Race, from 1927 to today. Donations will be added to a collection to be used in a Road Race exhibit at the Manchester Historical Society’s new Community History Center. The committee wants items related to participating in the Road Race – working as a volunteer, running, or viewing – including pictures, home movies, audio excerpts, sportswear, participant numbers, and printed programs from related events (spaghetti dinner, press conferences). Race fans with items to donate should use the Contact page on this web site by clicking here.

       



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