GLEN RIDGE, NJ — County and local elected officials, on Friday, Oct 14, dedicated a track in the East Orange portion of Watsessing Park to 1952 Olympic gold medalist and Glen Ridge resident Horace Ashenfelter.
The track, at the intersection of Glenwood Avenue and Boyden Street, was named “Horace Ashenfelter Track” at a well-attended event that included Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr., Glen Ridge Mayor Stewart Patrick, Glen Ridge Councilman Dan Murphy, and Borough Administrator Michael Rohal. Also on hand were East Orange Mayor Lester Taylor, Bloomfield Councilman Nicholas Joanow, and Essex County freeholders Cynthia Toro, District 5, and at large Freeholder Patricia Sebold.
In addressing the attendees, Patrick called the dedication a fitting tribute to a noted Glen Ridge resident. He said they had met five years earlier, at the Glen Ridge Country Club. “He’s very modest,” Patrick said. “I was surprised to find out he was an Olympian and a gold medalist.”
The mayor thanked DiVincenzo for his assistance in improving Washington Field in Glen Ridge. Patrick also recognized Rohal and Murphy for making the dedication of the track a reality. He credited them with doing much of the work in making the tribute occur.
Taylor called DiVincenzo a man of action and thanked him for improving the facilities at the park.
“It looks so different from six months ago,” he said. “There’s a new track, new basketball backboards and new plantings.”
Murphy, a former cross-country and track runner at Glen Ridge High School, said the idea for the dedication was an anonymous suggestion on Facebook. Addressing the audience, he asked if that person were present to please stand up. No one did, but he thanked the unknown person just the same.
“As a Glen Ridge resident, I had heard there was an Olympian in town,” Murphy said. “This was mythical.”
His chief high school rival was Ashenfelter’s son, Tommy. Murphy said he was told that this rival’s father was an Olympic gold medalist. Murphy said he went to Ashenfelter’s home to meet the Olympian.
“I rang the doorbell,” he said. “It didn’t work.” But Ashenfelter’s wife, Lillian, came to the door.
“I got to see my first gold Olympic medal,” he said. “This man inspired me.”
Another son, James, told the audience of 200 that the track being dedicated was where his father did most of his practice and that he prepared for his Olympic event, the steeplechase, by jumping over park benches.
According to the inscription on the plaque he was to receive, “Nip” Ashenfelter did not begin running until after he returned from WWII, married and began attending Penn State. In the late ‘40s, he blossomed as a premiere American long-distance runner. His victory over his Soviet rival in the steeplechase, at the 1952 Olympics held in Helsinki, was hailed as a victory for the free world.
“The indoor track at Penn State is named after him,” James said. “But this one is closer to the heart. This one is home for him.”
DiVincenzo told the audience that Watsessing Park is used by three towns. “I wanted to make sure it was done right,” he said of the improvements to the park.
He told Ashenfelter the fence was going to be painted black.
Glen Ridge residents, DiVincenzo said, went on Facebook to lobby for the dedication. He said Tom Fleming, the former Bloomfield resident who was also present, and twice a New York City marathon winner, “put this county on the map.”
Then it was Ashenfelter’s time to speak.
“A show of hands, how many of you have seen the groundhogs?” he said.
Before the dedication, his wife, Lillian, recalled how they met.
She said they knew each other in grade school, in Collegeville, Pa., but they really did not meet until they were in high school.
“We were in the same class,” she said. “There were 18 of us. We were seated alphabetically. He was ‘A’— Ashenfelter. I was ‘W’— Wright. He was in the front and I was in the back. He didn’t date girls but in his senior year he asked me out.”
Their first date, she said, must have been going to the movies and then an ice cream soda afterward; that was a typical date back then.
“He didn’t know how to dance,” she said. “I taught him so we could go to the prom together.”
She said in high school, being an athlete, he was only interest in sports but the Collegeville High School did not have a track team.
“He didn’t run until he came out of the war and went to Penn State,” she said.